Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Legend of Hercules and Oblique Imagery; Review by Payman Akhlaghi (2014); Short and Independent Film Review

The Legend of Hercules (2014, 2D) and Oblique Imagery
A Short and Independent Film Review
By Payman Akhalghi (Draft 2)

To my surprise, and despite their similar looks and techniques, Hercules was not directed by Zack Snyder, the creative mind behind the imaginative - if historically flawed -- "300" (2006). I had liked some of director Renny Harlin's earlier works including Cliffhanger (1993); and there are many things to enjoy in this film, as well, such as creative fight scenes, imagination set loose in visual graphics, beautiful color schemes, wonderful costumes, stylish camera angles, and effective underscoring by the Finnish composer, Toumas Kantelinen, which fits the genre very well.

However, the plot lacks in the dramatic power and depth of characters which would be necessary to engage the audience on a personal level; indeed, the film felt much longer than its 99-minute recorded time. The pace is too hasty yet without contrast, as if the idea has been to to jump from one battle scene to another; the voice of the cast seldom matches their excellent looks; and the sound design at some point creates an exhausting sensory overload that I found quite disengaging. These issues have become common to many heroic action and adventure films made today; in contrast, we may recall Kubrick's "Spartacus", a successful example for any such films, starting with its first rate screenplay.

The conception of Hercules by Zeus is an apt cinematic moment of the film, carried out with more of the basic cinematic and performance elements than the pervasive CGI. The treatment of violence is also noteworthy: thankfully, unlike the current norms of the genre, no blood gushes out of the necks and torsos, and acts of mutilation of the defeated warriors are demonstrated only by referential symbols, such as waving a hood in the air. This in itself creates a necessary sense of detachment, and it's a positive move toward a less literal, less violent, and less spasmodic cinema, and toward a more poetic, imaginative, and thoughtful language.

In fact, a less literal vocabulary of violent imagery has had a long history in sophisticated cinema. Robert Bresson (Lancelot de Luc, L'Argent) is a prime example among the master filmmakers who successfully employed only oblique references to violence. Fritz Lang could show a moment of death (Hangmen Also Die) by the close up of a hat stopping to roll. Hitchcock had a keen sense for controlling the audience detachment (distancing, in Brechtian language), even as the quite engaging shower scene of Psycho, despite its reputation as a literal moment of violence in cinema, aptly demonstrates: the edit and close ups, and the masking effect of the music, do not allow the audience to completely lose a sense of reality. Andrei Tarkovsky could dramatize the cruelty of pouring molten metal into the mouth of a victim by merely placing the sound of gurgling on the masked imagery of the violence.

More recently, Steven Spielberg, though known for the scary world of Jaw or the melting faces of the enemy in the Indiana Jones adventures, when dealing with a especially realistic, least cartoonish moment, shows a preference to draw upon more oblique imagery in his vast toolbox of cinematic vocabulary. To illustrate his mastery of audience detachment, or distancing, when it's called for, consider War of the Worlds, where the protagonist (Tom Cruise) is compelled to take the life of another human to protect his child: the brutal act is shown off screen, behind a closed door, implied only by sounds, and a visibly beaten father stepping out of the room.

(*) Disclaimer: When it comes to reviews, do not take any one person's word, even the best of them, just for it. I wouldn't. A variety of arbitrary factors might have affected any author without him knowing it, factors that had nothing to do with the film itself, from where he sat in the theater, to what happened before stepping into the theater, fatigue, problems with the language, distractions, personal taste, etc. Nevertheless, I hope you found the above memo useful.

- The names and dates were checked against
- Wikipedia was consulted for the exact term used in the case of Brecht.
- Robert Bresson was most appreciated in 1980's by philosopher Babak Ahmadi in a book in Persian on him. "The Wind Blows Wherever It Wishes".

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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