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Movie Review: Hercules

Hercules has been doing the rounds this year with three films including: Hercules RebornThe Legend of Hercules and now Hercules starring the top-grossing actor of 2013, Dwayne Johnson. Of the three, Hercules, is head and shoulders above the rest and we're not just talking about Johnson's physique. Although to be fair, it wasn't going to be a task based on the quality of the other two.

The film's enjoyment depends largely on your expectations going in. This isn't an attempt at recreating an epic like Braveheart, but more to the tune of Conan with A Knight's Tale sensibility. That being said, Hercules is heavy on the action with a side order of comedy, and doesn't really try to delve deeper than its pulpy graphic novel origins.

We enter the story after the legendary twelve labours, and journey with a band of sidekicks under the banner of Hercules. Now that he's established himself as a legend, he turns his attentions to aiding the King of Thrace and his daughter by turning his cohort into a band of mercenaries for hire in a bid to seek-and-destroy a pillaging warlord.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Hercules. Besides being The Scorpion King, he's next generation Schwarzenegger, and if you've been able to appreciate Arnie's unmistakable accent, disarming charm and demi-god form in films like Conan, you're halfway there. Johnson usually relies on his charisma, but he's a humble hero as Hercules... playing it down like Mark Wahlberg. The eight month gym regime clearly paid off, and he retains his star presence without deferring to The Rock persona.

While it's an epic action-adventure based on the Thracian Wars graphic novel, it also serves as a comedy. What else would you expect from a film starring The Rock and directed by Rush Hour's Brett Ratner? It's not a complete send up, but falls in line with films like A Knight's Tale. You actually find yourself wondering if adding a couple of killer rock anthems to the soundtrack wouldn't have done the trick.

Hercules Movie Review

"Friends, Greeks, countrymen, ready your spears..."

The tone is a little problematic. We've got seriously epic sword-and-sandal Greek mythology playing out with Braveheart speeches, 300 style warfare and a band of merry mercenaries under the mighty Hercules. Then, to complicate things... they've thrown in some amusing banter and tongue-in-cheek comedy you'd expect from The A-Team. It's fun and works if you're able to roll with it, but does create a slightly off-balance quest.

Luckily, we're able to fall back on the solid cast. Rufus Sewell echoes A Knight's Tale as the smirking second-in-command. He and Ian McShane are the pick of the heroes, delivering the funniest lines and also sharing a strange history thanks to their involvement in Pillars of the Earth. McShane is a welcome addition and pretty damn funny as a fatalistic part-time psychic. John Hurt, Peter Mullan and Joseph Fiennes add some finesse to Hercules as respected actors and high-ranking officials.

Then, there's some viking fighting spirit from Norway in Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Aksel Hennie. Berdal is striking like a young Nicole Kidman, playing Atalanta in a similar role to Evangeline Lilly's archer character Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Hennie doesn't have much to say, but makes the unhinged and explosive Tydeus a cantankerous joy. Reece Ritchie rounds off a strong cast as Iolaus, the team's herald.

This take on Hercules is similar to Kenneth Branagh's handling of Thor. There's a sincerity to the pompous retelling of mythology, yet it's tempered by the wink-wink tone and spurts of comic book comedy. As with many self-made superheroes these days, the writers have taken the opportunity to debunk the mythology to represent a mortal backed by an exceptionally loyal marketing entourage. It takes away from the magic, but keeps the story as grounded as a Biblical story like Samson with a little extra grit.

Hercules is all about the fun. There's loads of exciting action, suspenseful moments and violence to satisfy action junkies. The warring isn't as well-executed or epic as 300Braveheart or Gladiator, but tips the hat to these greats with a similar intensity and gore factor to King Arthur. Then, it leverages the A Knight's Tale tone without going as far as the We Will Rock You anthem from Queen. It's not demanding viewing, but tips the balance in its favour for being such well-paced and entertaining escapism.

The bottom line: Enjoyable

Top 5 Cult Movies

Some movies has a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps on pulling in fans ages after its release. Spling separates the wheat from the chaff to bring you only the best cult movies ever.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

If you want the epitome of cult, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is it. Tim Curry’s exuberant performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter helped cement an off-beat career and a musical comedy horror classic. While a tribute to sci-fi and horror b-movies from the 30s to 70s, the film has become a social phenomenon.

After a false start, the film gathered momentum with midnight screenings in 1976, which had audience members dressing as characters and singing along. The Rocky Horror Picture Shows international cult following inspired a stage play adaptation and continues to draw crowds of fans and converts.

Cult Trivia: Mick Jagger wanted to play Dr. Frank N. Furter in the film version, while Meat Loaf stars as Eddie.

Quotable Quote
Frank: "Do you think I made a mistake splitting his brain between the two of them?"

The Big Lebowski (1998)

While a frontrunner for the film with the most f-bombs, the Coen brothers crime comedy cult classicThe Big Lebowski is arguably their most loved movie. The film revolves around the misadventures of "The Dude", a slacker and ten-pin bowler played by Jeff Bridges, and his best friend and bowling teammate, a cantankerous Vietnam veteran, played by John Goodman.

When The Dude's not taking it easy with a White Russian, he's bumping into a number of oddball characters and trying to unravel an unnecessary plot. Since its inception, The Big Lebowski has inspired the religion of Dudeism and annual festivals, including the Lebowski Fest and The Dude Abides.

Cult trivia: The Dude says "man" 147 times in the movie, nearly 1.5 times a minute.

Quotable Quote

Walter: "No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of."

The Evil Dead (1981)

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi struck gold with their micro budget log cabin horror, The Evil Dead. While the crew was largely inexperienced and the conditions poor, Raimi converted his short film, Within the Woods into The Evil Dead on a meagre $100 000 budget.

The film was labelled as a video-nasty based on its violent and disturbing content. While this hampered some commercial success, it helped foster its cult notoriety. Campbell's defining role as Ash Williams, earned him cult icon status as a figurehead for the film's media franchise, which has come to encompass Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, video games and comic books.

Cult trivia: Stephen King's glowing endorsement contributed to the movie’s success, and was used on film ads and posters.

Quotable Quote

Ash: "You bastards, why are you torturing me like this? Why?"

Donnie Darko (2001)

If you want a structured plot and logical, linear time-line, then Donnie Darko should not be on your to-watch list. While the film received a tepid response after initial screenings, it has developed a massive cult following since its release in 2001. While many would admit to feeling dumbfounded during the rendition of Mad World by Gary Jules in the closing credits, this is just part of the Donnie Darko experience.

The cult classic covers time travel, fate, fear, visions and generally functions as a dark, comic, supernatural high school fantasy drama. The '80s music adds to the surreal quality of the visions and Gyllenhaal's manic performance captures the offbeat and thought-provoking essence of Richard Kelly's film.

Cult trivia: The Arabic-styled font used on the original movie poster was changed after the attacks of 9/11.

Quotable Quote

Donnie:"Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?"
Frank:"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The fearless and now famous Flying Circus comedy troupe managed to give a timeless and iconic quality to their irreverent medieval send up, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. From using half-coconuts to mimic horses galloping, to concocting a string of indelible comedy sketches, the team outdid themselves on a shoestring budget.

The film's quotable quotes, memorable scenes and devoted cult following resulted in a "lovingly ripped-off", Tony award-winning Broadway production musical called Spamalot. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a testament to great writing and demonstrates that even Arthurian legend isn't immune to camp, silly and over-the-top comedy.

Cult trivia: ‘God’ is represented by a photo of the famous 19th century cricketer, W.G. Grace.

Quotable Quote

French Soldier: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

Close, but no cigar...

This Is Spinal Tap, Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, Anchorman, Shaun of the Dead, Fight Club and Blue Velvet.

This article originally featured in the August 2014 edition of TechSmart magazine.

Movie Review: Alles wat Mal is

Alles wat Mal is is a South African comedy about being a mom, a wife and a woman in today's crazy world. It's based on a short story by Deon Meyer, directed by Darryl Roodt and has been adapted to film by the team that brought us Semi-Soet.

Helena Joubert lost herself somewhere between varsity, getting married and raising her kids. Once a go-getting journalist, she's become a work-from-home mum, running after her two hyperactive tots and her husband. Gustav, eager to land a big investment, wines and dines a beautiful new client and it's not long before Helena reaches breaking point...

Alles wat Mal is embodies a lead character with equal parts of Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones's Diary. Just like Ally, Helena's a slightly neurotic woman, trying to make a mark in her career, nursing an ailing married life and a tendency to make believe. Then, while a modern woman, she's also rather clumsy, self-doubting and prone to embarassing situations like Bridget.

A promising female lead role requires an actress, who can roll with the punches like Erica Wessels. She's attractive, believable and fun-loving, falling somewhere between Emily Mortimer and Tina Fey. As Helena, we can identify with her struggle to be everything to everyone as a super mom and wife, allowing these roles to dominate her personality. It must be quite liberating for women in a similar stage to live vicariously through her rebellious return to self.

"Eat, Pray, Love... is permanently on my to-do list."

She's supported by Louw Venter as Gustav, her distracted and seemingly wayward husband. The character's ambiguous standpoint adds some suspense as we assume the worst and try to believe the best. Venter walks this tightrope with some precision, keeping the plot taut with a performance that reveals a flawed man with a number of redeeming qualities. Alles wat Mal is, gives Wessels and Venter equal billing, but this is really Helena's story.

Christine Storm is cast as the femme fatale and man-eating investor. She's arrogant, beautiful, loud and sultry, checking all the boxes as an alluring and intimidating woman. While playing into the stereotype, it's a comical take as the rich temptress with affair potential. Meme Ditshego is a charming comic partner to Wessels, carrying great light and exuberance, as the two share a sweet friendship as nanny and employer.

Alles wat Mal is isn't a big budget comedy, but it does have a world class director in Darryl Roodt, who manages to keep the production in check. It's often comical and ventures into the fantastic, but the comedy works within its limits with one foot firmly on the ground. While familiar and formulaic, it's entertaining in its simplicity and amusing in the adventure of finding oneself.

The Eat, Pray, Love style escapade all happens in Helena's head as she literally helps herself make a conscious decision to get back in touch with the old Helena. Wessels is convincing in the duality, earnest in her attempt to rescue that untamed spirit and warm enough to hold it all together as the glue that settles between all the parts of Alles wat Mal is.

The formula helps keep things on-track, the Instagram morality is broad and the Hollywood style climax may grate for some, but it's smoothed over by a convincing and determined performance by Erica Wessels. For the most part, it works... not as a laugh-out-loud comedy, but as a lightly amusing, comical, sincere and spirited emotional reinvention comedy with flashes of romance and drama.

The bottom line: Fun

Movie Review: Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff shot to fame as the star of the medical comedy, Scrubs and subsequently directed and starred in the critically acclaimed, Garden State. Ironically, the ten year gap between Garden State and his follow-up Wish I Was Here also happens to be the time period his Garden State character was estranged from his family.

While a long-awaited follow-up, both films share a number of themes coming from the standpoint of the lead played by Zach Braff. He's essentially playing a more dysfunctional 30-something version of himself at a crossroads, one which forces him to re-examine his life, his career and his family.

Familiar territory aside, Wish I Was Here is both a heartwarming and heartbreaking comedy drama. While it's probably an insult to compare his work with that of Adam Sandler by today's standards, they share some broad goals in terms of audience and both aim to generate laughs and warm cockles. Yet, Braff's film surpasses these goals and injects some much-needed substance in the process.

It's not a wholly original film, snagging inside jokes from sitcoms like Seinfeld and Arrested Development and tipping the hat to Woody Allen with its navel-gazing and quirky mix of comedy and drama. There's a strong religious undercurrent as Braff deals with his father's wishes, his children's schooling and his own spirituality, or lack thereof.

Wish I Was Here

"Mo' money, mo' problems."

Wish I Was Here has some strong parallels with other films that tread a similar line. It echoes the humour, religious and suburban strife of A Serious Man, the soul-searching coming-of-age drama of Around the Bend and delivers a healthy dose of Thanks for Sharing's tough love.

The main drawcard here is the performances. This is a passion project for writer, director, producer and star Zach Braff. There's no denying the love and care he's invested, which filters through to a committed, sincere and typically charming performance as struggling actor, father, husband, son and brother, Aiden Bloom.

He's supported by Kate Hudson, who has reinvigorated her acting career with a terrific performance that showcases her tremendous talents, depth of emotion and versatility. She shares one particularly memorable and moving scene with an almost unrecognisable and soulful Mandy Patinkin, who plays Aiden's father. Josh Gad chimes in as Aiden's estranged brother, along with a quiet yet spirited turn from a promising young daughter in Joey King.

Wish I Was Here is an existential suburban film that steeps itself in moments of great emotional power, effortlessly falling back onto comedy to ease the pain before jettisoning into moments of playful sci-fi wonder. It's a somewhat strange, nostalgic, magnetic and affecting comedy drama that carries much power with its playful tone and heartrending passion. It may round some familiar bases, but still manages to clear the outfield.

The bottom line: Beautiful

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