Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Burn The Curtain: The Company of Wolves

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It's been quite a while since I've reviewed anything relating to horror on this blog, with my last out-and-out horror review being Dracula back in February. We're still quite a way off Hallowe'en, but Burn the Curtain have started the build-up early with an exciting new take on The Company of Wolves.
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The Company of Wolves is a 1984 horror-fantasy directed by Neil Jordan, who recently directed the hugely underrated Byzantium. Based on several short stories by Angela Carter from her collection The Bloody Chamber, it's a spooky and distinctive reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, drawing a variety of sources and utilising the cutting-edge in physical special effects.
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Burn the Curtain have crafted out a fine reputation as purveyors of promenade theatre - that is, theatre with no stage, in which perfomers and actors move from one location to another, and the action takes place in the midst of the audience. Last year they won acclaim for The Adventures of Don Quixote by Bicycle, in which the whole of Miguel Cervantes' seminal novel was played out on two wheels. In short, it promises to be an innovative and exciting new take on a well-worn fable.
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The Company of Wolves is being performed at the Riverside Valley Park in Exeter on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th August, with both shows starting at 7pm.Tickets are £8 for adults, £5 for under-18s and £24 for a family ticket (2 adults, 2 children); all tickets can be purchased from the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter here. If you still need to be convinced, check out the trailer below:
Daniel

Friday, 25 July 2014

WHATCULTURE!: Ian McShane

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In my third 'Awesome/ Sucked' article for WhatCulture! this month, I'm taking a long look at the career of Ian McShane to mark the release of Hercules. As much as I hate giving Brett Ratner any kind of publicity - there's a reason he's known as Hollywood's Toilet - I have a feeling that McShane's presence will at the very least make it a bit more bearable to sit through. I hope so, anyway.
Paramount Pictures
You can real my analysis of McShane's career here. Like my article on Keira Knightley, this did require a last-minute re-write, but hopefully you wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't told you. Don't forget to read my other articles this month, on Eric Bana and Andy Serkis respectively, or check out my Percy Jackson reviews if you're still hankering after some good old Greek mythology. Join me next week for something a little bit different...

Daniel

Friday, 18 July 2014

WHATCULTURE!: Andy Serkis

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My latest article for WhatCulture! looks at the career of Andy Serkis, a man who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors. To mark the UK release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I've been taking a look back at the highs and lows of his filmography in time-honoured fashion. Most of his most famous roles are in there in some form, but hopefully there's a few lesser-known ones that may intrigue you, one way or the other.
20th Century Fox
You can read my thoughts on Serkis in full here. Also be sure to check out my article on Eric Bana from earlier this month, if you haven't already. More WhatCulture! stuff coming soon...

Daniel

Thursday, 17 July 2014

GREAT FILMS: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China/ Hong Kong/ Taiwan/ USA, 2000)
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen

One of the traps with reviewing cinema outside of the Hollywood mainstream is assuming that difference equates to higher quality. We're so used to the American approach to storytelling and characterisation, with Hollywood-style films being made all over the world, that the second someone comes along with a slightly different approach, we assume that it must have some greater value. This over-valuing can lead to greater misconceptions about the cultures from which such films emanate, leading us to regard as paradigm-shifting art what said culture regards as derivative, third-rate trash.
 
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came at a time when American audiences were starting to gain a new-found familiarity with 'Asian' or 'Eastern' cinema. Together with Spirited Away, it was a watershed for bringing Chinese, Japanese and Korean films to greater attention in the West. While you might have cause for debating exactly how ground-breaking it is within its given genre of wuxia, it is still a great film with a well-told story which finds director Ang Lee at the peak of his powers.
 
I spoke about Lee's directorial style in my review of Life of Pi, for which he eventually won the Oscar for Best Director. With the possible exception of Hulk, Lee has always managed to strike an enviable balance between visual poetry and detailed characterisation. While the narratives in his films aren't always the most complex or profound, he has a knack of continually pulling us back toward the underlying story, where many lesser directors would get lost in the pyrotechnics.
 
Whatever else is true about it, Crouching Tiger (as it will be known hereafter) is very pretty. Peter Pau, who won an Oscar for his cinematography, fills the screen with natural shades and then lights them in an almost ethereal manner. The way that the greens of the bamboo and Li Mu Bai's sword seem to shimmer beautifully reflects the dream-like quality of Lee's storytelling and the epic, melodramatic feel that he was going for. This is all the more extraordinary given that Pau previously lensed the horror-comedy Bride of Chucky and Warriors of Virtue, a tedious affair noted for its incoherent, blurry action scenes.
 
Much of the appeal of martial arts films lies in their physicality and choreography. Many people who went to see Enter the Dragon weren't particularly interested in its story - they were simply taken in by how Bruce Lee could move in the fight scenes. Crouching Tiger benefits in this regard by the presence of Yuen Woo-Ping, the same man who choreographed The Matrix trilogy and later lent his talents to Kill Bill.
 
While the Wachowskis were off experimenting with 'bullet-time', developing the work of Lee's contemporary John Woo, Crouching Tiger takes a more balletic approach. It treats its martial arts like an elaborate dance, in which the violence perpetrated by sword, dart or hand is as much an end in itself as a means towards a more elaborate series of steps. The film almost draws your attention to the fact that many of the moves being performed are physically impossible, prolonging the length of jumps and glides that could only be achieved by highly-skilled wire work.
 
Of course, it's possible to appreciate the beauty of characters performing impossible stunts as an aesthetic exercise, such as the running and flying through the bamboo. But Lee manages to keep our disbelief suspended by investing so much time in the characters before the really outstanding fight scenes come along. Even if the story is painted in broad, epic strokes, it's strong enough and feels genuine enough that the dramatic scenes matter, whereas in a weaker film they would merely book-end the set-pieces.
 
A good example of this comes in a conversation between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi about halfway through the film. During a conversation about the latter's character getting married, Yeoh deliberately allows a small bowl or dish to fall from the table. Ziyi's character grabs it instantly in mid-air, preventing it from smashing on the floor and demonstrating her great reflexes, unintentionally and perhaps unconsciously. This small but impressive action confirms in Yeoh's mind her suspicions about the identity of the Green Destiny's thief - suspicions which we had entertained for some time, and which turn out to be correct.
 
This example also illuminates the storytelling technique employed by Crouching Tiger. It is melodramatic, insofar as the characters operate within clearly-drawn archetypes and their character development is reasonably clear from the outset. We can probably guess that the love between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien is destined to be unrequited, just as the thief's identity can be quickly ascertained by the very deliberate close-up on the eyes. While the plot isn't exactly spelled out for the audience, it is possible to spot most of its major points before they occur.
 
Many films at this point would fall apart because the characters aren't interesting or appealing enough to rise above their generic limitations - films like The Snows of Kilimanjaro, A Place in the Sun, or to a lesser extent Gojira. But Crouching Tiger uses its restrictions more proactively, using our foreknowledge to justify its emotional arcs all the more. Lee repeatedly uses very tight close-ups to force us to read into the characters' faces, and Zhang Ziyi in particular is very adept at making even the slightest smile or tiniest flicker of her eyes seem deeply meaningful.
 
Crouching Tiger explores a number of interesting themes which bring a greater depth to these kinds of character interactions. One of its big themes is hidden talent, with talent either hiding in plain sight (Jen Yu) or taking every precaution to stay in the shadows (Jade Fox). The title of the film is a literal translation of the original Chinese, which properly translated refers to "a place full of talented and extraordinary people hidden from view."
 
Within this is a comment on the manner in which women are underestimated or misjudged. Wuxia films incorporate many elements of chivalry, which traditionally depicts the male protagonists as heroes defending the honour of the women. Jen Yu and Yu Shu Lien both sword-fight, but the former consciously rebels against the accepted order, talking back to seasoned warriors like they were naughty schoolboys. The sequence where she lays waste to dozens of fighters in the inn (along with most of the inn itself) is much more empowering than anything that Tarantino has managed when he has dabbled in martial arts.
The film also examines the dominance of teachers over their students, even when the student shows tremendous ability. Most of the characters have some kind of grudge or burden relating to their masters. Jade Fox was sexually assaulted by her master, which makes her bitter, twisted and hateful of all men. Jen Yu doesn't want to be anybody's servant, rebelling against Jade Fox and longing for the more equal and respectful relationship she enjoyed with Lo in the desert. Li Mu Bai's solemn demeanour comes from his vow to avenge his master's death, with his search for justice ultimately leading to his own untimely end.
 
There is a recurring motif later in the film relating to poison. Poison is both the method used by Jade Fox to defeat Li Mu Bai and a symbol of her corrupting influence over the young Jen Yu. Li Mu Bai's desire for inner peace and clarity is in stark contrast to the chaotic, scrambled mind of Jade Fox; her actions are impulsive, desperate and cowardly, while his are controlled, effective and noble. It's a film about how passion can lead to destruction, whether by the hand of one's enemies or one's own choices. Jen Yu ends the film by diving off the waterfall, hoping to rejoin Lo; her passions have only brought her death and isolation from her friends, and she can no longer deal with either.
 
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great film which successfully conveys the conventions of wuxia to a Western audience. While those more familiar with the genre may not find it quite so remarkable, it remains a gripping romantic epic with memorable characters, interesting themes and visual beauty to spare. It's also a great introduction to cinema outside the English language or the Hollywood sphere of influence, and essential viewing for anyone interested in martial arts.

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NEXT REVIEW: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

BLOG SPOT #26: Joshua Budich

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Welcome once more to Blog Spot, my monthly plug for other reviewers and website who produce quality work. Apologies that this month's instalment is late, but I had a job interview yesterday and had to focus all my energies on preparing for that.
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This month I'm looking at another print artist, following on from my blog on Olly Moss last October. I can't recall exactly how or when I encounter Joshua Budich's work, but I've always been a fan of artists (whether amateur or professional) who can present culturally iconic material in a new light. Where Moss uses geometric shapes and Escher-style symmetry to create an image which epitomises the film, Budich takes the most recognisable character elements and gives them a fresh visual twist.
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Budich's work has more of a comic book sensibility than Moss, but his designs are just as intricate and detailed. His poster work owes a certain amount to Drew Struzan, the recently-retired artist whose poster credits include Blade Runner, Back to the Future and the Indiana Jones series. The composition of characters is similar, but with a more cartoony and striking colour palette than Struzan's airbrush work. Many of his character designs look like they have been achieved through rotoscoping, and his drawings from The Big Lebowski look uncannily like art from the Grand Theft Auto series.
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In addition to his film work, Budich has done many portraits of famous musicians, with his renderings of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan being especially good. Whichever aspect of his work you choose to explore, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something appealingly eye-catching with obvious levels of visual craft. My personal favourites are his takes on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (top) and Psycho (below), but his Quentin Tarantino and Star Wars series of prints are just as good.
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You can view all of Budich's current work here. Many of the prints can still be purchased online via the same site, though many of his earliest efforts are now sold out. Join me next month for another edition of Blog Spot!

Daniel

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

BLOCKBUSTER: Red 2 (2013)

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Red 2 (USA, 2013)
Directed by Dean Parisot
Starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Catherine Zeta-Jones

In my review of Taken, I spoke about two growing trends in mainstream filmmaking: "older protagonists as a reaction to a market saturated with youth, and weighty actors downsizing into trashy B-movies." The Expendables series and Liam Neeson's recent output find some of the most beloved actors of their period taking on roles that would have once been filled by people half their age and a quarter as talented.
 
Into this market driven by nostalgia and the need for pension plans comes Red 2, a sequel to one of the more slow-burning hits of 2010. Reuniting the original cast with a couple of new faces, it aims to bring a more overtly comic-book feel to a sub-genre built around nuts-and-bolts action thriller plots. The result is a little disappointing, not to say a little dull, but it's not without a few good moments.
 
As much as I objected to Taken, on grounds both structural and moral, I fully acknowledge the appeal of seeing older action stars - nay, just older actors - on screen in prominent, active and entertaining roles. Because so much of mainstream cinema is shaped around the demands of teenage boys, the range of roles available to actors becomes more restricted as they age. Unless you want to carve out a career playing Basil Exposition or people's grandparents, you're pretty much dead in the water by the age of 50.
A good benchmark from this perspective would be the films of Nigel Cole, such as Saving Grace and Calendar Girls. Both of these films are driven by older characters, who conform to some generic conventions but still feel like real people. While neither of these films are the most disciplined or structurally sound, they tell interesting stories which charm us and lead us to forgive or overlook their shortcomings.
 
While Cole's output wins outright in a fight over well-written female characters, Red 2 does have as much going for it behind the camera. Dean Parisot's output has been uneven, but he did helm the highly entertaining Galaxy Quest, once described by J. J. Abrams as "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made". Alan Silvestri, the film's composer, has a great record with Robert Zemeckis and more recently with Marvel. And the film is shot by Enrique Chediak, who did a really good job on 127 Hours and 28 Weeks Later.
 
Sadly, for all this build-up, none of the talent involved in Red 2 comes close to matching their reputations, on either side of the camera. Whatever the merits of its predecessor, this film is ultimately rather lacklustre in both its story and execution. While it's assembled in a workable enough manner to pass a couple of hours, it is in the end pretty forgettable fare, and considering who is involved that is the last thing that it should be.
 
Part of the problem lies in the attitudes of the cast. Todd Gilcrist wrote in his review that Bruce Willis "seems unmotivated to smile at all, much less offer a series of emotions that constitute a believable or compelling performance." While you may not agree with Gilcrist word for word, he does hit the nail on the head: none of the actors look like they're having fun. That wouldn't be a problem if the film were a sombre, depressing existential parable, but it is a problem when you're trying to make an upbeat action thriller with lots of jokes.
 
Much like Sean Connery, Willis is an actor who clearly betrays when he does and doesn't want to be in a given film. When he's confident in a script or having a blast on set, such as in Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys or Looper, he holds himself much more precisely and seems far more natural in his movements. When he's doing something purely because he needs the money, he slumps his shoulders, narrows his eyes and is much less responsive to his fellow actors. While this is by no means his worst performance, let alone his worst film, it does give off vibes of him only doing the part because he has to be that.
 
It's not just Willis that seemingly doesn't want to be involved. John Malkovich has been tetchy and irritable in other films (such as Shadow of the Vampire), but there's a weariness to his performance here which doesn't gel with the character's dynamic dialogue. Helen Mirren doesn't get a greal deal to do, and her attempts at deadpan humour just come across as flat readings. The only main actor who commits and engages to the required level is Byung-hun Lee, and his character seems to have escaped from a far better, far more interesting film.
 
The plot of Red 2 is decidedly episodic. Much of the film is built around set-pieces, either involving Lee's character wanting revenge on Willis or a third party becoming the target of either side. The set-pieces are technically accomplished, with good pyrotechnics, decent CGI and some realistic sound design, but there's not enough of any substance to link them together in a meaningful manner. To borrow from Shakespeare, it's a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.
 
In slightly different hands, this could have been handled better. The red mercury buried beneath the Kremlin is a neat little plot device, and Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins do wring the most they can out of their supporting roles, channeling the more thoughtful, more British spies present in The Ipcress File. All the little twists involving people changing sides which could have been used to drive the film are instead presented like the action sequences - as distractions, and nothing more.
 
The same goes for the romantic subplot-cum-love triangle that the script tries to tease out. There is potential (albeit well-worn potential) in both the female characters' main conceits, i.e. the inept love interest who finds herself caught up in events, and the old flame who puts the cat among the pigeons. But while Catherine Zeta-Jones takes to her costume well, it's ultimately a lot of under-developed flash, and Mary-Louise Parker isn't all that convincing.
 
In the midst of all this, it is more than possible to enjoy Red 2 as empty, disposable spectacle. It's clearly not trying (and failing) to make a lot of important political points, and its lack of pretension is to be applauded as much as its lack of ambition should be decried. If you only go to the cinema to see explosions, car crashes and famous people in various slow-motion poses, this will satisfy your appetite.
 
Red 2 is a disappointing action thriller which finds both cast and director falling short of their past potential. While the action is technically sound and there are a few witty or impressive moments (mainly involving Lee's character), it's ultimately too lackadaisical and episodic to cut the mustard. In the end it's not a bad film per se, just an aimless one which could have been a lot better with a tighter script and a stronger hand at the helm.

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NEXT REVIEW: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Day We Played Brazil

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So the World Cup is slowly coming to an end, with football fans having a wait a whole agonising month before the domestic season gets underway. But if you really can't wait that long to watch 22 men chase a piece of leather over some grass, the Exeter Northcott has just the thing for you.
The Day We Played Brazil 
The Day We Played Brazil is a brand new musical production which tells the story of the match between Exeter City FC and the Brazilian national side in 1914 - the first international match ever played by Brazil. It follows the members of Exeter City's tour to Latin America shortly before the outbreak of World War I, moving through the history of the club in the 100 years since this historic match. It promises everything that a football match can offer in terms of highs, lows, cheers and tears - though the singing will hopefully be more tuneful.
1914 Exeter City Football Team in Brazil
This production has personal significance for me since it features Jack Alderman in a supporting role. I performed with Jack in Two Fat Men with Broadclyst Theatre Group earlier this year, and was present when he (deservedly) won the Best Newcomer Award at the Exmouth One-Act Play Festival back in April. But beyond that, the show comes with the very best credentials. Exeter City FC and their Supporters' Trust have been closely involved in the production, as have The Bike Shed Theatre, who have hosted several of the Butterscotch Sunday screenings I've promoted on this blog.
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The Day We Played Brazil is playing at the Exeter Northcott Theatre from Wednesday 16th to Sunday 27th July. All performances are at 7:30pm, with matinees at 2:30pm on Saturday 19th, Sunday 20th and Saturday 26th July. There is also a special gala performance on Saturday August 5th at 5:30pm. All tickets are £14 and can be purchased online here or by calling the Northcott box office on (01392) 493493. Good luck Jack!

Daniel

Friday, 4 July 2014

WHATCULTURE!: Eric Bana

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It's Friday afternoon, which can only mean its time for another WhatCulture! article! This week I'm digging deep into the career of Eric Bana, who returns to our screens this week as the lead role in Scott Derrickson's horror-thriller Deliver Us From Evil. In time-honoured fashion, my new article looks back on the highs and lows of his career, from his break-out role in Chopper to his dabbling with radiation, time travel and teenage assassins.
Jerry Bruckheimer Films
You can read my thoughts on Bana's career in full here. Don't forget to also check out my other recent 'Awesome/ Sucked' articles, on Kelsey Grammer and Willem Dafoe. Have a good weekend!

Daniel

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Tiverton Dramatic Society: One-Act Plays

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Earlier this year I was involved in a production of two one-act plays with Broadclyst Theatre Group, both of which were entered into the national one-act competition. Now it's the turn of Tiverton Dramatic Society to do the same, with a brace of plays coming up at the beginning of August.
While both of Broadclyst's one-act plays were ostensibly comedy dramas, Tiverton's brace of plays couldn't be more different. The Rats is a mystery thriller by Agatha Christie, in which a man and a woman find themselves locked in a London flat during a party by someone who knows about them having an affair. Last Tango in Little Grimley, by contrast, is a farcical comedy about a failing amateur dramatics group, who resort to the lowest form of smut to stay financially afloat. To get an idea of the latter, click here to see photos from Warkworth Drama Group's production of it back in April 2010.
These two plays will be performing in August at three different venues with three different set-ups:

- Friday August 1st at The Venue, Cullompton (tickets £7.50, bar available - call (01884) 33265)
- Saturday August 2nd at The Walronds, Cullompton (tickets £15 including a meal - call (01884) 35934)
- Saturday August 16th at Village Hall, Calverleigh (tickets £10 including a sausage supper - available from Twyford Photography)

Please go along and support this great company in what promises to be a splendid evening.

Daniel

Monday, 30 June 2014

Cullompton Community Centre: Where We Are Now

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Although it's been a while since I worked for NavMotion, I've always tried to keep my hand in with filmmaking. Today I'd like to bring to your attention the fruits of one such labour: a short video I made for the Cullompton Community Centre.
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Cullompton Community Centre is a fantastic venue where businesses and community groups alike can hold meetings, conferences or events in a spacious, welcoming environment. A little while ago a service was held at St. Andrew's Church in Cullompton to celebrate the Centre's work for the local community, and I was asked to put together a short video explaining what exactly the Centre provides.

NavMotion were very kind to provide me with the camera equipment and editing software free of charge. I'm very proud of the results and I hope that you will enjoy them.

 There is also a subtitled version available, if you prefer:
Daniel