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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel witch hunters

The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

 

Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

 

As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?

 

Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.

Famke Janssen going witchy

Famke Janssen going witchy

 

I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).

 

Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.

 

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand

You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.

 

For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

 

So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.

 

In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

 

Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.

 

This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

October 30, 2012 2 comments

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) face the Chinese army

 

We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.

Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) approach Chen village

 

So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.

Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his British master Peter Stormare

 

In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.

 

I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.

 

For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

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