Tag Archives: The MAtrix

Failed Critics Podcast: Steve Norman’s Chest Freezer

Welcome to a rather late edition of the Failed Critics Podcast this week as hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are joined by Underground Nights co-host Paul Field. The ice cream’s are on Steve.

There’s a hastily arranged quiz (circa 2009) to kick things off before a brief chat about remakes, reboots, reimaginings and re-adaptations following the news that The Matrix is the latest Hollywood property set for the prequel/sequel/revisit/remaster/whatever treatment.

But it’s our new releases this week that have got the crew all hot and bothered as Owen and Paul fall under the spell of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. Certainly more so than period drama Viceroy’s House turned Steve on, in any case. There’s also space on the pod for a quick trip to Kong: Skull Island.

Paul reckons he’s found the future of geezer movies with Simon Phillips’ sci-fi feature The Last Scout, which Paul adoringly dubs “Hooligans In Space”. We’ve also gone all cultured an’ that, with Steve’s trip to the West End to see Dreamgirls. Yep. Theatre, on this podcast. What have we become.

Join us again next week for reviews of Get Out and new Disney, Beauty and the Beast.



Failed Critics Podcast: Jurassic World & Christopher Lee

christopher leeHuh? Where’s the podcast gone…?

…oh, no…


No, wait, here it is. And it looks like Steve Norman and Owen Hughes have spliced together some DNA and created a monster of their own in Mike Shawcross. You might think that’s an insult, but remember, ‘monster’ is relative. To a mouse, a cat is a monster. To Hammer Horror, Christopher Lee is a monster. To our audience, we are monsters.

Anyway, in this episode we review Colin Trevorrow’s new mega-blockbuster box office-record-breaking hit Jurassic World, including both a spoiler free review (as normal) and the return of “spoiler alert” at the end of the podcast after the credits.

Also in this episode: we pay tribute to the iconic Sir Christopher Lee, a true legend of cinema, who sadly passed away last week; as well as running through the original Jurassic Park films and the latest Channel 4 series Humans, Steve actually prepared a quiz this week; Mike explains the problems with The Matrix on blu-ray; and Owen raves about the documentary Paul recommended at the end of last week’s podcast, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Join us again next week as we review Entourage: The Movie (or whatever it’s called) and Mr Holmes.



Jupiter Ascending

Smart about being Stupid.

by Jackson Tyler (@Tylea002)

jupiter ascending 2If you’re anything like me, then you love Speed Racer with all of your heart. Eviscerated upon release, it has come to be seen as the Wachowskis’ true masterpiece by a growing segment of those who are referred to in hushed tones as “film people.” They’ll tell you it’s actually beautiful and earnest, a pure expression of the potential of cinema without a cynical bone in its body. I am one of those film people, and I am here to tell you that it’s happening again.

Jupiter Ascending is not the quite cinematic revelation that Speed Racer was, buts its more conventional aesthetic choices are balanced with its nostalgic commitment to genre and a greater thematic richness. A space opera in the most literal of senses, it is a melodramatic love story, a wondrous tour through decadent costume and set design, and a pointed takedown of the underlying amorality of capitalism.

Summarising Jupiter Ascending is more than a little difficult, the plot initially laying the groundwork for a chosen-one teen drama, before instead shifting into the action-packed proceedings of intergalactic corporate legalese. Warring members of one of the universe’s largest family businesses fight over the deeds to the Earth, and somehow at the heart of all this is Mila Kunis’ Jupiter Jones, a poor girl still cleaning toilets every day. She is the film’s emotional heart, swept up into the drama through nothing but chance, shepherded from plot point to plot point, a cog in a machine that cares not one iota for her agency or personhood. The convoluted story and Jupiter’s passive nature are reminiscent of recurring complaints levied at your Twilights, your Divergents etc., but here the film elevates them from narrative flaws to integral thematic components. Jupiter Ascending doesn’t inherit the problems of its genre, it confronts them.

All that makes Jupiter Ascending seem like a dry affair, but the reality couldn’t be further than the truth. It’s dripping in camp, from Eddie Redmayne’s villainous drawl to the time it decides to just turn into Brazil for about five minutes. The film’s true strength is the lost art of sincerity, it embraces the inherent stupidity of its space opera universe and still commits to every single beat. Much like Lucy last year, it is smart and stupid in equal measure, celebrating its pulpy nature and never undercutting either it or its thematic ideas in order to bolster the other. I like Guardians of the Galaxy as much as the next guy, but if the only way we’re going to get space bombast in the future is to couch it in a self-effacing layer of snarky detachment, then we’re living in a sad world indeed.

Ultimately, these are not the words I truly want to write about Jupiter Ascending. Those words would be full of spoilers, a parsing of the films specific themes and ambitions, a celebration of every campy line read and overwrought piece of set design. It is a film that demands its audience to meet it half way, and if you do, there is so much worth talking about on the side. For a film that also features Bees genetically engineered to recognise space royalty, I cannot think of a greater compliment.

Be on the right side of history, this time. Go see Jupiter Ascending, then we’ll have the right conversation.

Jupiter Ascending is in cinemas in the UK right now (finally) and you can find Jackson Tyler on the gaming blog and podcast site Abnormal Mapping. If you like the site, why not support them via their Patreon page?

Adultimation – Ghost in the Shell (1995)

For one day only on Saturday 27 September 2014 (almost 20 years after its initial release in the UK, the iconic, influential and often imitated but never bettered Ghost In The Shell gets the big screen re-release treatment courtesy of Picturehouse cinemas across the country. As if that wasn’t enough, on Monday you can pick up the limited edition Steelbook blu-ray! Once described as the film “James Cameron would make if Disney let him”, resident anime fanboy Matt explains why this is one of the most influential films of the last 20 years in the second instalment of our Adultimation series.

by Matt Lambourne (@Matt_Lambourne)

ghost in the shell 2If you purchased any Manga Entertainment VHS between 1993/94 it would have been impossible for you to not have seen or heard of Ghost in the Shell. It had been many years since the impact of Akira as the genre-defining movie had crossed-over graphic Anime into the mainstream. The world was ready for the next adult hit and by 1995 it had arrived.

“Can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?”

Ghost in the Shell is the story of a Special Police Unit (Public Security: Section 9) based in a not so distant future Japan, comprising of semi-cybernetic agents whose physical bodies have been fine-tuned and mechanically enhanced, known as Shells. In this post-cyberpunk future however, the Shell (or body) is somewhat dispensable and persona and memory can be transferred between bodies, this is the Ghost element of the movie, referring the transference of soul into differing physical entities.

Section 9 are in pursuit of an expert hacker known only as the Puppet Master who is responsible for implanting fake memories and realities into its victims minds to use their bodies to hack via proxy (known as Ghost hacking). As the movie progresses it becomes clear to the cybernetic contingent of Section 9 that the Puppet Master may not indeed be a person at all, but a Ghost that has evolved from the modern equivalent of the Internet, initially weaponised but has now become sentient and acting upon its own will.

This causes the members of the team to question their own origins and purpose in life, particularly the central figure of the movie, Motoko Kusanagi, who begins to consider if it is even important whether she was born human, or simply artificially constructed. As her investigations draw her closer to the Puppet Master, Kusanagi becomes paranoid or perhaps even indifferent to value of her own humanity.

The film progresses with Section 9 tracking down the Puppet Master’s temporary Shell. However, another government agency is seeking to obtain it for themselves, resulting in the climatic engagement of the movie with Kusanagi confronting a Spider-Tank in a battle sequence that may seem somewhat familiar to film fans for reasons which we’ll cover later in the article.

Without spoiling the end of the movie too much, Section 9 come out on top, although the Shell of Kusanagi is destroyed in the tank battle, her Ghost is merged with that of the Puppet Master. The new lifeform whilst resembling Kusanagi is neither her or the Puppet Master, which ends the film on a delicious outcome that leaves the future for this character open to interpretation.


Few films have ever been as hyped prior to release in the adult-Anime world as Ghost in the Shell was during the early 90’s. It featured in trailers for just about every anime film released for the 2-3 year period prior to it reaching a cinematic and eventual home release. For me it holds a tremendous fondness and was one of the first films I can recall ever being truly excited about for an extended period before its release.

The trailer itself is still one of my personal favourite examples of how to ramp up expectation and excitement with good marketing and extraordinary iconography without spoiling all the movie’s key plot-points. I implore you to take a look for yourselves:

Cel and CG animation

Ghost in the Shell is easy on the eye, that goes without saying. Even 20 years later it still looks fresh and edgy. Whilst the film is set in a near-future Japan, the densely populated City scenes are based upon modern day Hong Kong. Long narrow alley-ways, with a plethora of signs and that all-too realistic weaving of heavy concrete and rain causing a claustrophobic, damp and grey Urban-Jungle

The art work is especially stunning. Beautifully detailed digital Cel backgrounds combined with then state of the art CG animation made Ghost in the Shell not only feel light years ahead in terms of the sophisticated sci-fi plot but also in how it looked.

The music is also a key component, more so than in any Anime I’ve seen before or since. Gorgeous Japanese symphonic cords, blended together with traditional wedding vocals create a haunting tone during the film’s opening sequence with the shell of Kusangi being created, you know the movie is taking you into deep into the imagination of the director Mamoru Oshii from the get-go.


It can’t be stressed strongly enough how much impact Ghost in the Shell has had on movie makers, particularly in Western Science Fiction (namely the Wachowski Siblings). Its influence on 1999’s The Matrix for example becomes immediately noticeable from Ghost in the Shell‘s title sequence, which bears the hallmarks of the now iconic binary green rain as well as the cybernetic implants on the back of the characters necks.

There are many more touches shared between both films, both in the plot mechanics and the use of the Internet as a form of alternative reality. The action sequences also compliment each other greatly, as touched upon earlier in the article the climatic battle sequence is very similar to the lobby action-scene in The Matrix whereby pillars are used as means of cover but massively destroyed from gunfights to demonstrate fire-power.

Whilst it would be fair to say that The Matrix inserted more martial-arts at the expense of the the political plot lines, Ghost in the Shell features a limited amount of hand to hand combat whilst also borrowing from other Sci-Fi properties such as Predator with Thermo-Optic Camouflage being a key plot-trigger of the film

Its not a stretch to say though that The Matrix wouldn’t exist without Ghost in the Shell (and Akira before it).. that’s how important this film is in grand sphere of influence it wields amongst its industry fanbase. If you’re fortunate enough to have it showing near you this weekend, we highly recommended taking the opportunity to see it on a big screen. It’s a perfectly paced and easily digestible 90-mins of Sci-Fi Action that will live long in the memory.


by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

shrek 2This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.

05] Shrek (18th May 2001)

Budget: $60 million

Gross: $484,409,218

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

What can I say about Shrek that hasn’t already been said and that won’t just dissolve into hyperbole?  See, everybody knows Shrek.  Everybody knows the impact that it had on Western Feature-Length Animation for almost a full decade, everybody knows just how much to the forefront it brought stunt casting to the medium, everybody knows how it signalled the switch to an all CG format for these films, everybody knows the lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth.  Shrek is one of those films that everybody knows, and that makes it rather difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to just sit here and regurgitate facts at you, but I don’t want to resort to hyperbole and overstate the film’s importance like, let’s face it, it is very easy to do.  So, instead, I am going to have to go the dull route this time and explain the joke, explain why Shrek works and why it was seen as a major breath of fresh air at the time.  I know, that means I have to turn into That Guy, but a nice bit of perspective is good every once in a while.  Plus, it may be able to help contextualise why the next two DreamWorks films didn’t do so well and why everybody, including the company itself, would spend the following decade making shallow rip-offs of the winning formula.

First, however, a clarification, Shrek is not the saviour of Western Feature-Length Animation.  1999 may have been a dreadful year for animation, as we already discussed, and 2000 honestly wasn’t much better, but 2001 was not too bad, most likely down to the relative lack of releases.  Yes, there were bombs, most notoriously the live-action/animation hybrid Osmosis Jones and the photo-realistic CG spectacle known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but there were several unqualified successes.  Recess: School’s Out quadrupled its budget thanks to the large popularity of the show at the time, Atlantis: The Lost Empire significantly underperformed but still managed to turn an OK profit, Richard Linklater’s experimental Waking Life somehow managed to take $2.5 million, Monsters, Inc. became one of the year’s highest grossing films, and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was so successful that Nickelodeon were able to spin a full-fledged franchise out of the thing.  Shrek was not an anomaly, is what I’m getting at.

It was, however, and this cannot be overstated, a full-on box-office phenomenon.  It opened to $42 million, a ridiculous opening for an animated film that didn’t have a company with the kind of marketable goodwill that Pixar had with Toy Story.  It did not stay at the top for Week 2, due to Pearl Harbor, but it did something far better than Pearl Harbor: it gained money.  Not a lot over the three day weekend, 0.3%, but the full-on four day Memorial Day weekend saw a 30% increase over the opening weekend takings.  No, this simply does not happen to films that open that big; that’s the power that Shrek held at the time.  It only started making serious slides down the chart when Atlantis showed up and, even then, it gave as good as it got, actually beating Atlantis on the pair’s last appearance in the top 10.  Domestically, it actually beat Monsters, Inc. overall for the year.  You can overstate its importance in the animated landscape, you cannot overstate its box office dominance.

So, why?  Why was Shrek such a major success?  Why did it connect with audiences in a way that most non-Pixar films weren’t?  Well, honestly, it’s due to a multitude of factors but only one of them was taken away by people, both viewers and executives who noted the film’s success, who saw the film, the most tangible element: its edge.

Now, to say that Disney films are toothless and aimed at the youngest is a major misnomer.  You want an animated film that’s toothless and aimed at only the youngest, go and watch The Quest For Camelot.  However, Disney films are sentimental, very much so, and are prone to trying to water down the darker or more adult elements of their stories with comic relief sidekicks for the kids, primarily of the talking animal variety.  Mushu, Terk, Timon & Pumbaa, all the way back to the seven dwarves.  Regardless of whether you like them or not (and they are often some of the best parts of their movies in the best instances), their mere existence can scream to most people, “Look!  Funny cartoon for kids!”  And Disney films are romantic to a fault, especially their early work, with tales as old as time of brave, dashing princes saving fair, kind-hearted young maidens from whatever evil befalls them, of true love at first sight, magic and all that fancy, wonderful stuff.  They were on their way of at least toning down the overtness of this formula, and this obviously wasn’t the formula for everything they did, but it still wasn’t really enough.  Their films were still a bit too sentimental, too younger-skewing, too “safe”.  The fact that most other competitors were more focussed on attempting to emulate Disney’s style than come up with a voice of their own probably didn’t help matters.  Times had changed and the public needed something different.  Something with edge.

Cue the opening of Shrek.

I mean, sure, it looks tame and childish and petulant and toilet-humour and, well, that’s because it is, but for the time this was quite revelatory.  This was DreamWorks Animation throwing down the gauntlet.  “This is our film!  We’re not like those Disney films!  We’re not going to romanticise anything!  Here’s a real protagonist, he’s ugly and he farts and he’s as far removed from your typical clean-cut hero as we can get!”  Again, edge.  Sledgehammer-subtle satire and open digs at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old company.  The film is littered with these: the Duloc welcome machine, the design of Duloc looking like it was rejected from Disneyland, Princess Fiona’s continued assertions that her rescue is all wrong, the Robin Hood song being rather disturbing in content and quickly cut off because we are a film in the 21st century and musicals are sooo last century man, waterboarding the Gingerbread Man, there’s an extended Matrix reference because this was 2001 and we were just close enough to the end of Spaced’s second series (the cut-off point for this stuff) to not be completely sick of Matrix references yet…   Most of these achieve the desired effect of “parody” and “satire” barely, the best instances coming up with actual jokes or character work (you get no surprises for guessing what one element of Fiona’s character arc is) instead of just pointing at them and going “That’s a dumb thing for poo-poo heads!”  There are a lot more of the former than I was expecting, it’s just that a lot of it has aged really poorly; satire that curiously and possibly ironically carries the same toothless easy safeness that its target applies to telling actual stories.

Yet, at the time, it worked, possibly due to that broadness and occasional childishness, because that allowed everybody to get it and have everyone feel like they were part of this big taboo thing.  Although the film wasn’t really doing anything particularly edgy and risky, toilet humour and digs at Disney aren’t exactly hard to come by nowadays and I suspect they weren’t back then either, people lapped it up because it looked risky, it looked edgy.  They were insulting Disney and making a whole bunch of fart, burp and poop gags!  You simply didn’t openly insult that sacred cow on film or show that stuff in feature-length animation because, well, nobody else has done those things before to our knowledge so it must not be OK!  It’s like when you first watch an escapologist on a stage show in a locked water tank.  He’s not really in any danger cos he’s done this trick a million times before and there’s a highly trained rescue crew all set in case anything does go wrong, but you’ve never seen the trick before and the sheer audacity has you on the edge of your seat wondering if they can get away with it.

Plus, the constant piss-taking of the nature of fairy tales and especially their sappiness seems rather hypocritical when the film, in its final third, turns into a straight fairy tale, just with non-conventionally attractive characters.  I mean, it was obviously coming from frame one, but it’s the way that it mocks certain tropes (ones that it’s not using for character development, like Shrek’s belief that fairy tales are a bunch of bullcrap) but then goes ahead and plays them straight in the finale anyway.  A lot is made out of Fiona’s agency in the first two-thirds, how she may be overly attached to the romantic storybook nature of fairy tales but is still strong, capable, more of a tomboy than she first appears and frequently acts like a woman willing to take charge and drive proceedings, but then the plot entirely hangs around whether she’ll be saved from the evil man by her true love, Shrek.  She even spends the finale being easily restrained by the villains despite having previously had an entire sequence that showed her effortlessly wiping the floor with a group of the exact same size.

So, edge is predominately seen as the reason why Shrek was a runaway mega-success.  You may claim different, but it’s what countless lesser imitations took from it and it’s why Donkey became the thing that practically every kid was quoting on every playground for a good while after.  Like it or not, toilet humour connects with kids and jokes aimed squarely at parents, often around mocking how terrible the kind of dreck they’re often forced to sit through is, connects with them too.  It was the tangible “something different” that audiences could latch onto, the edge.  So, naturally, that’s what everybody ran with, the fact that it had an attitude.  Except that, well, that’s not the reason why Shrek works or, in fact, the reason why it was so successful.  See, edge on its own, with nothing to back it up or off-set it, is just off-putting; an entire film of just Shrek pointing at fairy tale tropes and sugarcoating and the like and smugly going “Heh!  Look at those squares with their baby stories!  We’re too cool and grown-up for that sh*t!  Now here’s a fart joke!  *fart*!” would be insufferable and likely have turned away the mass public it ended up courting.  In that case, what’s the real reason why Shrek succeeded to the extent that it did?

Well, let’s look at a few more surface-level and tangible things before we ensnare the real reason in our grasp.  For one, you cannot fault the marketing.  You’ve seen the trailer that was embedded earlier in this piece.  Hell, you’ve seen the trailers for the films in every one of these articles so far.  Regardless of what you think of the film it’s advertising, you have to admit, from an objective standpoint, it’s a fantastic trailer.  It’s got laughs, it sells the premise easily, the cast is clearly marketed because apparently such a thing really does drag people who wouldn’t normally see this stuff into the cinema, and it has a clear target audience in mind.  Allow me to put it to you this way: compare that with the trailer for Titan A.E., or the trailer for Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or hell even the trailer for The Emperor’s New Groove.  Again, we’re not rating the films, we’re rating the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.  Also, and yes it really must be said, the fact that Shrek was CG probably helped get a lot of initial butts in seats.  You may scoff, but do you think anybody would have seen Dinosaur or Jimmy Neutron without that New Technological Advancement Smell (see also: films that inexplicably made a bucketful more of money post-Avatar than they would have because they too came with alternative 3D viewing modes) coming off of them?  Plus, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz were at the top of their box office games when this was released, for whatever that’s all worth.

But this is all getting away from the real reason why Shrek was such a runaway success and why it still, to a degree, works today.  Of course, the film itself wouldn’t admit to it if you showed it to it, it’d probably derisively laugh and snidely quip about how that’s so yesterday daddy-o or something.  And, perhaps surprising no-one, it’s the element that all of the desperate imitators that cropped up in Shrek’s aftermath (you have no idea how much my soul cried upon seeing Disney’s Chicken Little when I was younger, you really don’t) chose to ignore.  Nonetheless, it’s the reason why the film works and it’s really quite a basic one.  See, strip away the CGI, the well-done marketing campaign, the stunt casting, the toilet humour, the Dance Party Ending and the “satirical” and “edgy” humour, and you find filmmaking basics: great character work and a tonne of heart.  That’s it.  That’s the secret ingredient.

I’m not kidding.  This film is at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve and feeds its humour through character work or genuine heart instead of just “for-the-hell-of-it”.  For all of the opening’s pomp and circumstance, the edgy-but-not-too-edgy Smash Mouth soundtrack and the extensive sequence of Shrek showering himself in muck, the little character beat that best sells the character of Shrek is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it little cue near the end when he spots the villagers coming to hunt him and he just sighs and shakes his head before heading off to do his ogre thing.  In that one little action, likely missed by most people, the personal conflict that appears in Shrek’s arc, his preference for being alone but in actuality craving some kind of acceptance, is conveyed.  It’s why the onion thing works, too.  It’s not just an easily quotable scene that’s rendered funny by the rapport and delivery of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, it gets across Shrek’s desire to be looked upon as more than just an ogre in his jerkier form; note how the stargazing scene that he and Donkey share later on basically touches upon the same things but in a softer way, more reflective of how he’s warmed to Donkey even if he won’t admit to it.

The character work is why the fact that our four lead characters are played by major and recognisable Hollywood actors isn’t an issue.  See, unlike, say, Shark Tale (we will get to that thing, believe me), everyone in Shrek is playing a character instead of themselves.  Donkey may be a very Eddie Murphy character, but he has his own identifiable character, arc and traits that are obviously distinguishable from Murphy.  He delivers his lines in a way that is unmistakably Eddie Murphy, but he’s still playing Donkey, if that makes sense.  The same is true of Mike Myers, the same is true of Cameron Diaz, the same is true of John Lithgow.  It’s not just stunt casting because they’re big name stars (although, considering the fact that she is by far the weakest of the bunch, one could still level that complaint at Cameron Diaz), it feels like they were picked because they honestly were the best for the job.  Mike Myers, especially, commits 100% to making Shrek a character instead of a thinly-disguised Mike Myers self-insert or something; the decision to have the character speak in a Scottish accent came from him and, according to Kaztenberg, caused $4 million worth of animation to be thrown away in order to fix the lip-syncing caused by the change.  Of course, seeing as that Scottish accent so perfectly embodies the character of Shrek in this film, I have a feeling that few people minded in the end.

Shrek, though, is always at its best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.  Because it does have a heart, a great big mushy one not unlike the fairy tales it spends a lot of its runtime openly flipping metaphorical birds at.  See, when you get right down to it, this is a film about sad lonely characters outcast by society for their various physical deformities and eccentricities forming friendships and relationships with one another based on that shared lack of acceptance.  It’s why the film’s turn in the last third into a straight fairy tale, whilst admittedly a bit hypocritical seeing as it spent the prior 60 minutes snobbily scoffing at their continued existence, works, because it believes in the characters.  It loves the characters, it wants to give them that fairy tale ending because it truly cares for them, and we sit there and go, “Yep, story checks out,” because it let that heart break through early on and its total taking over of the picture doesn’t feel false.  That middle 30 minute stretch with Fiona, and most specifically the montage set to an admittedly on-the-nose choice of Eels song (in fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the film’s song choices, whilst mostly great, are so on-the-nose it makes The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’s sound cues look subtle by comparison), is what makes the curse twist and what makes an otherwise super on-the-nose “Hallelujah”-backed montage carry genuine emotional resonance instead of ringing false.

But the heart isn’t just limited to the obvious moments and arcs, it informs some of the film’s best gags and scenes.  For every Matrix reference just because, for every open mockery of Disney (which, again, really has not aged well at all), there are gags and scenes that have had heart and effort put into them.  Think of the Magic Mirror The Dating Game riff.  On the one hand, yeah, it comes out of nowhere and is a clear reference to dating game shows.  But, on the other hand, it’s a different spin on the exposition dump that princess back-stories in these types of films are usually saddled with.  It dresses up the trope in fancy new clothing, making what once was rote, boring and obvious now fast, funny and interesting.  There’s a genuine reason for it being here and, barring one awfully-misguided gag about Snow White (and, no, this is not the last time that I will call out a Shrek film for going too far joke-wise), it retains a respect for the characters it ensnares.  The fight scene in Duloc’s palace is funny for its wrestling references and there is something basely funny about an old woman screaming for someone to “Give him the chair!” but, again, it works on character and heart-based levels.  It’s not just a wrestling scene just because, like Fiona’s Matrix sequence ends up, it helps foster Shrek and Donkey’s relationship and gives Shrek his first taste of public acceptance, igniting the need he didn’t think he had.  Likewise, the plight of the fairy tale creatures, their persecution and occasional torture, is nearly always portrayed sympathetically.  Yes, there is something inherently funny on seeing a legless Gingerbread Man begging to keep his gumdrop buttons, but the film is always on his side and isn’t just doing it for the laughs and cruelty.

That is why Shrek works.  Strip away the still pretty-decent CG (the strong character designs are what carry it through comparatively stiff animation), the all-star cast, the pop song soundtrack, the double-coding of gags (incidentally, the recurring “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” line in relation for Farquad’s castle is an example of double-coding done right), the “satire” and the “edge”, and what you have left are strong characters and a tonne of heart, the cornerstone of most great films worth their salt and what Disney were still putting out at the time of Shrek’s release.  But, of course, most people take those things for granted and look for the more obvious and tangible elements to praise instead.  Admittedly, they’re not totally wrong, the attitude, “edginess” and CGI are what made Shrek unique and are likely a large reason for its success, we do like to have our classic stories and tropes dressed-up in newer clothing after all.  But they’re not the reason why the film works, they’re not the reason why people kept coming back to the cinema for eight full weeks, they’re not the reason why the film won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Film and the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, and they’re not the reason why the film still works 13 years on and well after viewing #30 (yes, I was a kid and mainlined the VHS and DVD at the time).  Shrek works because it remembered that edge does not equal a substitute for strong characters and a giant beating heart at its centre.

Unfortunately for most of the 2000s, it’s a shame that nobody else really seemed to figure that out.

Shrek changed pretty much everything, but it would take a while for its effects to be fully felt and for anyone to be able to capitalise on the major impression that Shrek made on the pop culture and Western Feature-Length Animation landscapes (animation lead times, and all).  In the meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation still had two traditionally-animated films to burn through… unfortunately, they ended up being released in the worst possible time for that form of the medium.  Over the next two weeks, we’ll chart the fall of traditional animation in Western Feature-Length Animation, beginning with 2002’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Into The Storm

Into The Storm is a whole bunch of unbelievably dull sound and fury signifying nothing.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

into the storm 2Found footage requires suspension of disbelief.  It requires enormous suspension of disbelief.  It requires you to believe that cameras are nearly indestructible and have infinite battery lives, that the people holding them are both too stupid to stop filming and just run, have had no prior experiences with holding a camera before because nobody shakes a camera that damn much and are profoundly selfish people for continuing to record proceedings instead of helping other out, and that there is someone out there who felt the need to edit the traumatic experiences that a bunch of people went through and release the resulting borderline snuff-film to the general public.  Like I said, this requires an enormous suspension of disbelief and it’s why the best ones either keep the gimmick as minimalist as possible (see: The Blair Witch Project) or provide enough of an emotional connection to the characters and world being filmed that the bells and whistles don’t distract as much as they should (see: Earth To Echo).  Would some of these films be far better if they didn’t stick to their conceit?  Mostly, yeah, that’s why District 9 and End Of Watch eventually do just drop the found-footage angle.  It’s why Chronicle managed to engineer an in-story way to have its lead character be able to keep the camera steady and provide different angles and the like when filming.

I bring this up because Into The Storm has been hiding a key component of its DNA from its marketing, presumably because 2014 hasn’t been good for found-footage financially (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due, the aforementioned Earth To Echo unfortunately), and that is the fact that this is a found-footage disaster movie.  And not a simple one, either, where it’s just one guy with a camera.  This is a film with about 200 different cameras, most of them recording different things, several of them destroyed at some point, many by characters who never even cross paths, multiple times do camera-operators in the film stand around filming the leads trying to save somebody instead of helping, and yet it can’t even keep up its conceit the whole way through.  We are supposed to be watching a film, one made in-universe by somebody at some point, yet we keep getting shots and footage that make no sense in the found-footage conceit.  Lots of CG shots of destruction from far away, several from inside some of the tornadoes, some that manage to be totally still even whilst stuck in the path of a tornado.  It’s not like End Of Watch or District 9 or Chronicle where it’s obvious what’s found-footage and what isn’t or that you’re just viewing events through cameras in-universe instead of a constructed film, this is supposed to be a constructed film but it cheats frequently without being clear as to when it is doing so.

So, in the end, I spent a lot of the time sat there wondering how these shots were being constructed.  How is this fitting in the film’s universe?  All the found-footage ends up doing is being a major distraction, something that kept pulling me out of the movie constantly.  “But, Callum,” regular readers may be going, “Didn’t Earth To Echo have a similar kind of where-is-the-footage-coming-from-issue?  You gave that a pass, remember?”  That I did, because the found-footage conceit never got in the way of the tale, of the emotional centre, of the strong characters.  By contrast, Into The Storm has nothing.  Oh, sure, it has characters in the barest sense, in that they have names and characteristics and arcs, but they are all paper-thin and the film doesn’t really seem to care about their existence.  There’s our supposed lead, a high school vice principal (Richard Armitage) with two sons, one of whom is socially awkward (Max Deacon) and has a crush on a popular girl (Alycia Debnam-Carey), the other of whom is a bit of a douche (Nathan Kress) and both of whom resent him because he alternately forgets they exist or is all up in their respective grills.  There’s a team of storm chasers headed by a leader who is a dick who only cares about the footage until he doesn’t (Matt Walsh, for some reason), a storm expert who has been away from her daughter for too long (Sarah Wayne Callies), and two friends (Arlen Escarpeta and Jeremy Sumpter) one of which isn’t cut out for this line of work.  And there are also two redneck hillbilly stereotypes (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) who want to be YouTube stars and are here for exactly the reasons you’re thinking of.

That is the extent of the film’s interest in its characters.  Everybody goes through all of their arcs, all of which you’ve seen done a million times before (the race against time to rescue the vice principal’s eldest son and the son’s crush will only seem fresh if you simply have managed to block The Day After Tomorrow from your memory for the last decade) and all performed by characters spouting exposition and their current thoughts and feelings at one another in an extremely clunky fashion, but there’s no interest in them.  It’s like the film resents having to spend time with these people.  I mean, I don’t blame them, especially since none of the actors even attempt to elevate this stuff.  Richard Armitage shouts gruffly, Sarah Wayne Callies looks and talks concerned, Matt Walsh acts like a dick until he doesn’t, Kyle Davis and Jon Reep play up their redneck hillbilly stereotypes to the point of insufferability, Nathan Kress acts like a douche.  They don’t even attempt to ham the thing up to enjoyable B-movie levels in order to make up for the lack of characters; everyone’s trying too hard, trying to be all serious serious.  Speaking of, sometimes the film briefly pretends like it wants to be a stark warning about climate change and you get one guess as to how well it pulls it off.

Instead, the film just wants to destroy stuff.  Which would be fine, I guess (forgive me for wanting a bit more out of my disaster movies), if the effects were good and if the whole enterprise weren’t so mind-numbingly boring.  The tornadoes look like a CGI cutscene in a PlayStation 3 game circa 2007, green-screening is prominent and very obvious, certain effects are of a much lower resolution and quality than the rest, that bit in the trailer with the planes and the airport is still laughably dreadful looking, and the inevitable moment where we go into the big monster tornado (which itself looks like Parallax from Warner Bros’ Green Lantern movie) looks as good as the bit in The Matrix Revolutions where Neo and Trinity try to burst through the real world’s sky.  It’s all so, so, so cheap, just barely above a Syfy Original Movie (don’t even get me started on how poor fire looks), which wouldn’t be such a problem if it had stuff going on that didn’t involve destroying stuff.  If the only thing you want to do is smash stuff real purdy-like, you need to come correct with excellent effects and, unfortunately for Into The Storm, every other Summer blockbuster so far this year soundly trashes it when it comes to destruction porn.

There is one part of the film’s marketing that was completely accurate, mind.  The ads made no secret of the fact that this was going to be a loud film.  And it is.  It is very loud, it is ridiculously loud; if I were in the screen next door, I guarantee that I would have heard it shake like an earthquake was about to go off.  Once a tornado hits, every speaker is filled with ear-rupturing booms, the score is drowned out by the chaos on screen, and the “LOUD NOISES” setting is held at a sustained peak for far longer than is tolerable.  The combination of the sheer volume of the film and the handheld nature of most of its shots worked to leave me exiting the cinema once the credits rolled with a splitting headache, a sensation that hasn’t happened to me since A Good Day To Die Hard last year.  One could claim that that meant the film had succeeded in its aim, that I had been taken into the proverbial storm, as it were, and that I should applaud the filmmakers in their achievements.  Bollocks to that, I would reply.  I was instead subjected to the 90 minute equivalent of being trapped on a non-stop tilt-a-whirl at the loudest and most obnoxious speed metal concert around, and that’s not particularly an experience I want out of my movies.

Plus, Into The Storm is just so unrelentingly boring.  There are no stakes because none of the characters have any depth or the attention of the film, there are no thrills because the effects stink, there’s no tension because the film goes so loud for so long that it numbs all of the senses, there’s no fun because the only comedy comes from outdated redneck hillbilly stereotypes who exist for exactly the reason you’re thinking of…  It’s just noise.  Seemingly endless noise.  It’s just sound and fury signifying nothing.  Folks, at time of writing, I am just about 24 hours removed from seeing this film and I remember nothing.  I mean, I remember the ways in which it doesn’t work, but I remember no specifics.  I don’t remember any character’s names, I don’t remember anything that was said, I don’t remember any particular scene, I don’t remember which two of the supposedly important cast actually dies, nothing.  Hell, by the time I’d made the hour’s drive back home after seeing it, I had basically forgotten about the whole thing by then.  The only things that proved that I had actually been to see Into The Storm were a lowered fuel gage on my car’s dashboard and a headache that had partially subsided on the drive back.

This one sucks, folks.  It sucks real bad.  Don’t give it the time of day.

Callum Petch missed his chance to find out that.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Man Of Tai Chi

Although it’s nothing groundbreaking, Man Of Tai Chi is really good at what it does and is a very strong directorial debut by Keanu Reeves.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Man-of-Tai-Chi-FightI like Keanu Reeves.  I know he always seems to get a bad rep by film lovers and movie-goers for frequently giving stiff and emotionally-restrained performances, but I really like him.  There’s just something about him that makes me happy or comforted when he pops up in movies (that same “thing” I recently discovered, round the time of Chef in fact, is also possessed by one Scarlett Johannson, so it’s good company to be in).  Plus, regardless of his performance, he frequently picks interesting films that end up far better than they should have been.  Bill & Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix, Side By Side, (for me, anyway) 47 Ronin.  Say what you like, the guy’s interesting and, for me, his appearance in a film is cause for me to sit up and pay attention.

So when news breaks that Reeves has decided to make a martial arts film, his first directorial effort and partly financed out of his own back pocket, loosely based on his Matrix stunt team best friend Tiger Chen and starring Chen as himself and Reeves as the villain of the piece… yeah, you can consider all of my attention appropriately raised.  My interest has been caught; and if the film itself is actually any good, that’s kind of a bonus, really.  And the film itself is good, it’s really good.  Although there’s little you won’t have seen in numerous other martial arts films, Man Of Tai Chi is a damn great one with good performances, strong fight scenes and confident direction.

Tiger Chen plays, well, Tiger Chen, a delivery courier and one of the last practitioners of Ling Kong Tai Chi.  Tiger wants to demonstrate to the world its effectiveness as a combat martial art, instead of just as an exercise or a meditation technique, much to the disapproval of his master (Yu Hai).  Opportunity comes in the form of the total sociopath known as Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who offers Tiger the chance to come and fight for him in an illegal underground fight club whose matches are (what else) streamed to a secret uber-rich clientele.  Tiger refuses, noting that using Tai Chi to fight for money is dishonourable, but his hand is forced when his master’s temple is branded a safety hazard and the repairs required are ludicrously expensive.  Time passes and Chen starts to realise that he really likes fighting, and the freedom that fighting for Donaka gives him, ends up in the crosshairs of Hong Kong Detective Sun Jing Shi (Karen Wok) who has been relentlessly pursuing Donaka for years, and you can probably guess where things are going to go from here.

Yes, Man Of Tai Chi is rather predictable.  If you have ever seen a martial arts picture involving an underground fighting tournament or any film about the corrupting influence of power, you will likely be able to call the film’s story beats down to the second.  There is a very clever twist about exactly what Donaka is offering to his clients but you’ll probably still figure that out about 40-or-so minutes into the movie (I know I did, at any rate).  That predictability isn’t particularly an issue, mind.  In fact, it ends up making the film feel more like a loving homage than anything else.  Tiger takes rather a bit too long to figure out that something’s up with the organisation he’s fighting in and that maybe there’s some semblance of a connection between the timing of the planning submission and the entrance of Donaka into his life, but it’s fine.  It works for the genre and the reveal late in the game probably wouldn’t work as well if Tiger were less naive.

Besides, you’re not watching a film entitled Man Of Tai Chi for groundbreaking and original plotting.  You’re most likely here for the fight scenes and, in that case, you’re going to get more than your money’s worth.  The choreography is handled by Yeun Woo-Ping and he’s clearly not content to just coast on past successes, here.  Every fight, no matter how short, tells a good story and they get a lot of mileage out of pitting Tai Chi up against various different styles of martial arts and showing how Tiger is able to best them.  Choreography is kept predominately realistic with wire-work being a rare but noticeable (but not unwelcome) occurrence which keeps proceedings grounded and full of impact.  Standout fights include Tiger’s “interview” for Donaka which gets a lot of mileage out of Tiger turning up in a suit and tie, a fantastic sequence in which Tiger has to fight two guys at once and is notable just as much for its lighting and set design as it is for the story told by the fight itself, a sequence where Tiger duels with his master, and the final fight between Donaka and Tiger which is protracted but very well-paced.

Reeves’ direction of the fights is extremely assured, obviously indebted to the Wachowskis and martial arts cinema at large.  Takes are longer than average, shots are steady and clear at all-times but still dynamic when they need to be.  There’s a very well-crafted sense of space and his camera constantly darts around in order to find the best possible viewpoint of the action.  Close-ups and medium close-ups are deployed when necessary but aren’t limited to showing fighter reactions or individual strikes before cutting back to master shots, thanks predominately to the longer takes.  Fight pacing is also well-done, longer ones definitely feel longer but they don’t drag, they’re always clearly building to either the next character beat or the fight’s climax.  Reeves has learned well and the quality of the fight scenes really do disguise the fact that this is being made by a first-timer.  The one exception is in regards to the usage of slo-mo which is mainly withheld until the final fight but is egregiously and distractingly deployed.  Oh, and there’s one instance of super-slo-mo, during the otherwise excellent duel between Tiger and his master, and it in actuality just looks like normal-speed footage where everybody moved reeeeeeaallly slllooooooowwwwwllly; it’s campy in a bad way.

Outside of the fight scenes, things are still good but sometimes noticeable as the work of a first-timer.  Reeves does have a decent grasp of pacing, but he’s not quite there yet.  This is a film that runs 105 minutes but feels like one that stretches just over two hours; there are sequences where the film sags a bit, it’s pretty much all necessary but it still drags at points.  The script is really on-the-nose which is fine, again let me refer you to Tiger’s duel with his master, so long as dialogue isn’t involved which is, at times, clunky and unnatural.  Editing is mostly fine, with the stand-out being a montage where Tiger’s experience fighting in Donaka’s league ends up bleeding over into his fights in a professional martial arts tournament, but he occasionally makes some strange decisions (unnecessary shots, random jump cuts, momentary lapses in scene geography, the aforementioned super-slo-mo) that are more distracting than stylistic.  Cinematography and music, however, are great and Reeves’ direction is never anything less than competent.  It’s all very confident, very learned, if I hadn’t known that this was his first time behind the camera, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Oh, and whilst I’m nitpicking, there’s a car-crash late on in the film that is done with the cheapest CG money can buy.  Considering how the rest of the film is so slick and sleek, in a way that’s more befitting a $30 million budget than the $15 million the film sports, it’s rather jarring and reduces the scene to something that’s, in all honesty, pretty laughable.

Finally, there are our two lead performances.  Tiger Chen turns out to be a very capable leading man.  A lot of the film’s narrative and character arc depends upon Tiger’s (the character) facial expressions and he’s very adept at them; going from kind-natured earnestness to hardened anger-fuelled rage and back again in a way that’s much subtler than that sounds (and should be) and relatively nuanced.  Plus, you know, he’s got a very commanding screen presence during fight scenes.  Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, is once again very stoic and reserved but, this time, it immeasurably helps his character, painting Donaka as a complete and total sociopath.  His presence is creepy and exudes authority and Reeves seems to be having the time of his life sneering his way through such a thoroughly detestable character; it’s a really strong performance.

Man Of Tai Chi has been sent straight-to-DVD here in the UK, which commonly leads to the perception that the film in question is poor-quality tripe looking to rip you off of your hard-earned cash.  And it’s a shame that people may end up thinking that because Man Of Tai Chi is better than at least 80% of the films I have seen in cinemas so far this year and deserves open minds and willing chances.  It’s a very confidently directed, if a little formulaic, martial arts flick with great fight sequences and strong lead performances.  I really enjoyed this one, folks, and highly recommend you seek it out.  Don’t let the botched release put you off, this is absolutely worth your time.

Man Of Tai Chi is available now to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Callum Petch buried our heart in the attic of your daddy’s house.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Following Takes Place Between 2005 And 2014

24 LADRight now: terrorists are plotting to assassinate a presidential candidate, my wife and daughter have been targeted, and people that I work with may be involved in both.  I’m FailedCritics writer Callum Petch, and today is the longest day of my life.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

On Wednesday, 24: Live Another Day successfully managed to make me cry as they killed off a major character (I shan’t specify here for the benefit of those of you who are either not caught up yet or are saving all of the episodes for marathoning at a later date).  Two weeks ago, they revealed that another character was a mole and my response was of gleeful shock instead of eye-rolling.  Last week, the show pulled off an action sequence that genuinely had me on the edge of my seat even though they obviously weren’t going to kill off Jack Bauer, c’mon, that’d be like ending The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania (shut up)!  Hell, from frame one, this season had my attention and when it finally ran that intro, I realised that 9PM Wednesday nights for the next 11 weeks were going to be the sole property of 24, much like how 9PM Sunday nights were the sole property of 24 for a good four years before.

24 and I have a history.  See, 24 was the first prime-time drama I ever watched.  I was 10 years old in 2005 (and, yes, I do realise that I have made the majority of the people on staff here, and likely a fair percentage of the reader-base, feel really old by saying that) and the demo disc that accompanied one of my Official PlayStation 2 Magazines had a video hyping the future release of 24: The Game.  Being 10 years old in 2005, I got excited for pretty much anything assuming that it looked cool enough.  And 24: The Game looked cool, it had gun fights and car chases and people shouting really loudly at other people and it all looked really exciting.  (You may think poorly of me for this line of thought but Enter The Matrix was what got me into The Matrix, in the same way that my love of cartoons got me into The Animatrix, so there was a method to my madness.)  I was sold on the game and, consequently, resolved to take a shot at the show.

It took a little convincing my dad but I managed to get his permission to record an episode one Sunday night on VHS (yes, it was 2005 and my dad was still recording shows with VHS, what of it) for me to watch the following day after I got home from school and finished my homework (I was a real boy scout in my formative years, feel free to mock).  Without having to look it up, I can tell you that episode was Day 4, 9:00pm – 10:00pm and involved the season’s big bad Marwan holding Jack Bauer hostage, whilst he set plans in motion to shoot down Air Force One.  I know that a lot of people like to use this phrase in regards to things that they are overly impressed by, but it really was like absolutely nothing 10 year-old me had ever seen before.  The hour was fast, it was brutal, it was stylish with its split-screens and that ominous ticking clock, and it had my full undivided attention for the entire hour it ran.  Lower down on the list but also important, it was filled to the nines with plots and history and characters that I had no prior knowledge of but were clearly important prior to the episode and for the episode in general; as a 10 year-old who was used to cartoons and Nickelodeon sitcoms, the idea of the events of one episode of a show carrying over and informing the events of another one was mindblowing to me.  I was hooked, I wanted more of whatever it was selling and to subscribe its newsletter etc.

So, naturally, I didn’t check in again until the last four hours of Day 4, VHS recording of digital channels being what it was.  Not that it mattered, though, as the damage was already done and I was determined to see more.  BBC Two re-ran parts of Day 1 over the Summer and I have vague memories of forcing 10 year-old me, who was always in bed for no later than 8PM (yes, you may yuck it up at this fact), to stay up to the twilight hours of the morning in order to catch Jack Bauer rescuing his wife and daughter from the terrorists and defying the odds by saving presidential candidate David Palmer.  Christmas 2005 brought me the complete Day 4 boxset, a present I had been begging for for about six months; my parents even took me into the store as they bought it to make absolutely sure that it was the right present and everything, like they knew I would never forgive them if they screwed up.

Day 5 was scheduled to begin just over three weeks after Christmas Day.  I finished that Day 4 boxset before 2005 was out.  As soon as the credits on one episode had passed, it was straight onto the next one with the only self-imposed breaks coming from toilet stops and refilling drinks, and breaks imposed on me by society (like “Christmas dinner” and “you have go to bed” and “you’ve watched enough for today, come and spend time with your family”) lasting for the bare minimum of time and not one second more.  24 just had its hooks in me, it was compulsive viewing.  The relentless pace of the show, combined with its (on the surface) serious tone, had a sense of urgency that I simply hadn’t experienced before.  Most cartoons and kids’ sitcoms, well the ones that I watched and liked anyway, were very relaxed.  There were conflicts and moments of drama, but it all still felt safe and relaxing, that these were issues that could be resolved at any point without any danger to the characters involved, especially since some kind of funny joke would be along at any point to diffuse the tension.  The constant ticking of the clock, though, which always re-appeared on screen whenever the pacing seemed on the verge of dipping, kept that from happening.  These were real threats with real stakes that needed resolving now and that urgency wasn’t being let up until either the threat was resolved or the hour was over.

And that feeling of events having real stakes was compounded by how often 24 would actually let the bad guys get one over on the heroes. Again, at 10 years old, 11 when I finally got the Day 4 boxset, I was conditioned by the shows I watched to expect the heroes to win.  The heroes would always win.  No matter the obstacle, no matter how bleak the situation looked, the villains would never significantly hurt anyone and the heroes would always foil them.  Perhaps as a result of their season structure (filling 24 hours’ worth of programming is likely very hard), 24 would sometimes let the villains actually do some real damage.  Killing off major characters, revealing that certain characters were evil all along, having several attacks go off without a hitch.  I was not prepared for it.  “You don’t let the bad guys win!  That’s supposed to be Storytelling 101, right?”  There was only one other show that I was watching at the time that did that on about as regular a basis as 24, Codename: Kids Next Door (and I’ll have more about that in the near future), but it shocked me.  It also reinforced the idea that Jack Bauer, and his friends and co-workers at CTU and in the government, were only human.  Sure, they would eventually take down the bad guys and bring them to justice, but they weren’t infallible.  They weren’t superhuman, they couldn’t stop everything all the time and I wasn’t used to heroes that were that vulnerable.

Of course, being 10/11 years old, I was enamoured with Jack Bauer.  He was just the definition of cool: a man dedicated to serving his country and willing to go as far as he had to in order to protect it.  Bauer was driven, resourceful and mostly unflappable under pressure.  But he was also prone to overstepping, conflicted about his more questionable actions, devoted to the people he loves and respects, and was just a man.  Again, that fallibility was what grounded him, made him more than just a force of nature.  He had emotions, thoughts and feelings and sometimes they, along with other outside sources, would conspire to trip him up.  I think that’s what drew me to him, even though I wouldn’t have realised so at the time.  Yes, his one-man rampage through a terrorist compound to rescue the Secretary of Defence James Heller and his daughter, and Jack’s lover, Audrey Raines was awesome incarnate, but his capture and torture by Marwan made him more grounded and his family drama made him more relatable.  After all, everyone loves a relatable underdog, it’s human nature.

For Day 5, I adopted the practice, through much begging to my dad (and also to my mum to let me stay at his house on Sunday nights), of recording the episodes on VHS on the Sunday night and then getting up extra early on the Monday morning to watch them before school.  Initially, this practice was due to my extreme excitement for new episodes; waiting until I got home from school at 4PM was much too long when I needed to know what was happening in the lives of Jack Bauer, Chloe O’Brian, Bill Buchannan and others right now, dammit!  Eventually, though, word got out that I watched 24 (my memory is too hazy to remember how and I chose that phrase because it sounds far cooler than the more likely answer “I never stopped talking about it”) and it turned out that there were other people in my year who watched the show too.  Suddenly, I had another reason to watch new episodes as soon as possible, so that I could chat about them with friends over lunch, the school kids’ equivalent of the water cooler.

See, 24 was the home of so many firsts for me.  It felt like a primer for all future adult dramas I would get into as practically all of the tropes that 24 had exposed me to (heightened stakes, fast-pacing, heroes who could lose, shocking character deaths and even shocking-er twists, cliffhangers, “did you see [x] last night…” conversations with people the day after, the season with the massive dip in quality that we all like to pretend never occurred) would be deployed or come up in practically every other big drama I have come across since.  Some would even do 24 better than 24 at points (Nikita’s first season is probably the best example of such a thing) and the show suffered a dip in quality after the phenomenal Day 5 (still one of my favourite seasons of TV ever) that it never really recovered from, but it always held a special place in my heart for being the first.

Being the first is not the only reason why I stuck with it all the way to the bitter end, mind.  Nostalgia doesn’t blind me that much to the quality of things (for example, Day 6 sucks utter balls and if you’re going through the series for the first time I guarantee that you can skip it and lose pretty much nothing).  See, even at its worst, 24 was always entertaining.  At its best, few shows could touch it.  Not in its ability to turn the screws, not in its ability to extract tension, not in its ability to keep the pace up, not in its lead turn (seriously, no matter how the show ended up, Kiefer Sutherland was always exceptional as Jack Bauer), not in its action, not in its audacity.  Those two reasons are why, ultimately, in the final minutes of Day 8 3:00pm to 4:00pm, during Jack and Chloe’s last conversation with one another, I blubbed like a sheep that’s just been told it’s up next for the slaughterhouse.  Part of it was the moment itself, and part of it was finally closing the book on the previous five years of my life as a show so integral to my formative years finally drew to a close.  My dad, who was sat next to me at the time primarily because I had commandeered the TV from him and he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go in the house, probably thought I was weird for doing so, but how would he know?  My last tether to my infinitely happier childhood had finally wrapped up.

Which is why it was strange to hear in May of 2013 that 24 was coming back, in the same way that the return of The Powerpuff Girls back in January for a one-off (at the time) felt strange to hear.  As much as I loved the show, 24 peaked back in 2006 with Day 5.  I mean, sure, it still reached some great heights (and some lows we don’t talk about) but its best days were undoubtedly behind it.  Its signature tricks were beginning to feel like checklist clichés, I greeted Day 8’s mole reveal with much derision instead of shock.  Plus, I have a cautious wariness about people digging up things I once loved and trying to resurrect them.  Add in the fact that most of the people involved in 24 had moved onto Homeland (which I still love and is still great and I will not hear otherwise) and… well… what place does 24 have in 2014?  The television landscape has both absorbed and moved past 24’s big hooks and storytelling style, not to mention the fact that pretty much every possible angle of the show’s universe and concept had been wrung out in the original run.  What’s gained by bringing 24 back for a 12 episode half-season besides a nostalgia run and a filled up slot on the schedule for 11 weeks?

As you may be able to guess, I was sceptical for a lot of the build-up to the season, even with all of the tidbits that they were throwing out that should have gotten myself, a die-hard 24 fanatic for whom the show was a vital part of his growing up, super excited in anticipation (Chloe’s back!  Heller is the president!  Yvonne Strahovski is still getting work!).  But as the premiere date drew ever closer, I started getting excited, I started getting hyped, my worries and suspicions faded into the background.  I was excited for 24 again.  I was so excited that I actually stayed up until 3am on premiere night, when I really should have been doing uni coursework instead, in order to catch the US/UK simulcast.  And it was good.  It was really good, in fact.  Suddenly, I was excited for next week’s episode.  And then next week’s episode was great, so I was really excited for the week after’s episode.  And this cycle kept going and going until they revealed the mole in 4:00pm – 5:00pm and I realised something.

For one hour every Wednesday, I am back to 2006 Me.  The one going through his first as-it-happens season of 24.  The one who counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds between episodes.  The one who is genuinely blindsided by twists and reveals, whose heart gets broken when characters he loves are killed off, who is on the edge of their seat because “oh, man, how is Jack going to get out of this?”  The four year break between the end of Day 8 and the start of Live Another Day really is the best thing that could have happened to 24.  Whilst it never really fell out of my memory or my life (I have the entire show on DVD and Blu-Ray, obviously), enough time had passed between new episodes to make the prospect of them something to relish instead of accept as a thing that will happen.  That time distance is what makes Chloe O’Brian telling someone to open a socket a joyous little in-joke, a tight Jack Bauer escape feel amazingly badass, or the reveal of a mole to be an exciting twist in the ride.  Everything feels fresh again, even though it’s not.  The season so far has basically been a greatest hits of the 24-verse and that four year gap is what adds to the appeal, instead of feeling like a warmed-over re-hash.

Which, again, is what leads me back to my point: for one hour every Wednesday for the last seven weeks, it is like the last 8 years never happened.  With the exception of the having friends to discuss the episode with (*blasts All By Myself whilst gorging on a tub of cheap ice cream*), it is that exact same feeling!  A straight blast of that every week.  24 is hitting me like it did the first time and for one all-too-brief hour every week, I am back at my dad’s house.  It is 7am Monday morning, I am sat on the couch with my cereal and watching last night’s episode recorded from my VHS before I have to go off to school.  I am in bliss, and nothing else matters because terrorists have placed Jack Bauer and CTU in a seemingly impossible situation and I need to know how they are going to get out of it.  So thank you for coming back, 24.  For the hour of my life you have taken up these past few weeks, you have made it seem like the last eight years never happened and I cannot thank you enough for giving me that feeling.  Dammit.

Oh, and because I know you, the reader, are curious:

Day 5

Day 2

Day 4 (for personal reasons you’ve likely already figured out)

Day 3

Day 1

Day 7 (its last third really drags the whole season down)

Day 8 (although its last third is some of the best of the whole run)

Day 6 (which is mostly without value after 9:00am – 10:00am)

Callum Petch might need a raincoat.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Bigger than Jesus?

This Sunday is International Chocolate Egg and Reduced Shopping Hours Day! If you’re not a follower of this holiday’s patron saint Jesus: the Great and Powerful, why not pick yourself a new Messiah in the form of a great movie character who also came back from the dead? We’re a multi-faith organisation, and our collection has something for everyone.

gandalf_the_white_in_fangornGandalf – The Lord of the Rings

Sporting a beard, shabby robes, a band of followers, and using phrases like ‘fellowship’, Gandalf is a great choice for those who want an alternative to Jesus but fear too much change. He smokes a lot though, and isn’t keen on turning the other cheek when faced with an aggressive orc army.

His death is a heroic one, battling an almighty balrog up and down mountains, enabling his companions to escape to safety and push onto Mordor. Far more stagecraft and theatricality that Jesus though, as he waits whole weeks before resurrecting in some kick-ass new white robes astride a souped-up horse.

Neo – The Matrix

A new messianic figure for a new generation. Neo is a computer hacker so, instead of overturning the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, could have just accessed their Cayman Island accounts and given them all terrible credit ratings. Like Jesus though, the authorities see Neo as a dangerous and subversive influence, and ultimately kill him. His resurrection is a little disappointing, when Trinity tells him she loves him, and the resulting kiss somehow fulfils a prophecy that restores Neo’s life.

The only real drawback to following Neo is that Matrix Revolutions is more impenetrable and preposterous than the book of Revelations.

The Bride – Kill Bill

Why should men get all the messianic worship? The Bride is the Holy Trinity all wrapped up in one; parent, murdered messenger of peace, and ghost from the past. She doesn’t believe too much in the idea of forgiveness though. If Jesus had taken a samurai sword with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, then Sunday School would have been a lot fucking cooler.

She may not have technically died, but she is in a coma for years, and then manages to escape being entombed by remembering a Kung-Fu training montage. Beats rolling away a rock from a cave, anyway.

E.T. – E.T. The Extra-terrestrial

Like Jesus, and Ghandi after him, E.T. is a proponent of peaceful resistance. E.T. comes to Earth from above, and inspires 10-year-old Elliot to love, fight, and free captive animals from their certain death. He can also heal the sick (well, sick flowers), and even ascend to the heavens. E.T. dies after being captured by the government of the land, but resurrects himself and, with the help of his disciples, escapes and returns to his family in the sky.

Basically, imagine the bible directed by Steven Spielberg and scored by John Williams. Who wouldn’t get on board with that?

Eric Draven – The Crow

The devil has all the best tunes, so why not even the stakes with rock star Eric Draven. Well, that’s if you consider the ‘best tunes’ to be a cross-breed of nineties emo-metal dirges. Killed by a gang who raped his girlfriend, Draven is reborn as The Crow, and seeks to take vengeance against the men who destroyed his life.

A little selfish for a potential messiah in my opinion.

Aslan – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Basically, he’s a talking Lion Jesus. Voiced by Liam Neeson.

Hallelujah, I believe!

Phil Connors – Groundhog Day

Basically, he’s Bill Murray.

Hallelujah, I believe, etc etc.

GFF13: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Weaving Old GeorgeAfter Ang Lee’s visually striking, if slightly lightweight version of ‘the unfilmable novel’ Life of Pi last year, comes an even more ambitious adaptation in the shape of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker’s take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A labyrinthine epic spanning six different narratives over a 500-year period, the film has already divided critics and film fans on the other side of the Atlantic following its release last year. The UK finally gets its chance to make up its own mind this week.

Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Broadbent in various roles across the six storylines. Other actors who appear in at least two (and often more) of the narratives include Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and an often unrecognisable Hugh Grant. Unfortunately, this will be the first sticking point for members of the audience, as the make-up work to enable these actors to appear as such a diverse range of characters is both incredible, and at times horribly jarring. Seeing Hugh Grant as an angry Korean restaurant manager, for example, is possibly the most disturbing cinematic sequence since, well, most of Antichrist. Looking beyond the make-up, some actors handle the range of performances required with more élan than others, with Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent displaying fabulous versatility, while Tom Hanks struggles in a few scenes; particularly as the Irish (possibly?) gangster Dermot Hoggins.

The key for this type of multi-layered film to succeed is that none of the interweaving storylines should bore you, and on the whole this is true of Cloud Atlas. In fact, a number of the strands would make excellent films in their own right. The personal stand-out story for me was the story of Robert Frobisher, a disinherited young libertine (Sturgess) who obtains work as the amanuensis to a world famous composer (Broadbent). Their working arrangement gives Frobisher the time and inspiration to write the Cloud Atlas sextet, a piece of music which echoes throughout the film’s extraordinary score. At times I wanted the film to give this story a little room to breathe and stretch its legs, but as soon as this pre-Second World War environment of duty, honour, and forcibly concealed sexuality got its hooks into you, the film moved onto a different timeline.

There is a huge potential for this to go horribly wrong and it really shouldn’t work, but somehow the Wachowskis and Twyker are performing cinematic alchemy right before our very eyes. On paper, there is so much about this film that shouldn’t work. Tonally, it’s all over the place; one minute you’re watching a farce about pensioners plotting an escape from the nursing home from hell, the next a dystopian science-fiction parable about conformity and rebellion. The editing can be hugely disorientating, sometimes jumping between three or four different narrative strands in a matter of seconds. Everything about this film is exactly what they teach you not to do in film school. And maybe that’s why some people (myself included) will love it.

There are moments I laughed out loud at the sheer lunacy of it all, especially during a frankly bizarre storyline set in the distant future where Tom Hanks and Halle Berry talk in an infuriating patois (“ain’t the tru tru”) and Hugo Weaving turns up an amalgam of Old Gregg and The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh. I’m still not entirely sure what happened during that period of the film, but it never bored me for a second. And that’s the triumph; in a near three hour running time, with six separate narratives, it never once loses momentum. It is a relentless juggernaut of a film, and afterwards I felt like the victim of an intellectual hit and run.

I still find it hard to recommend though, as I know full well that a great number of people will hate it more than the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels. I just can’t help loving it more than The Matrix.

Cloud Atlas is released nationwide on Friday


The Failed Critics coverage of Glasgow Film Festival is sponsored by Brewdog Bar Glasgow – providing award-winning beers and brilliant food in one of Glasgow’s friendliest bars.

We would have spent most of the festival there regardless, so we’d really like to thank them for their generous hospitality.