Sunday, 14 January 2018

Starship Troopers: Traitor Of Mars

Voice cast: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, DeRay Davis, Justin Doran, and Luci Christian

Director: Shinji Aramaki  

88 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Ian Shutter

While independent Mars celebrates its 25th anniversary of the red planet’s terraforming, alien bugs invade and prompt corrupt Earth authority Amy Snapp to destroy the former colony to save humanity’s home world. With psychic Carl and captain Carmen sidelined for the duration, this franchise of interplanetary missions, here confined mostly to a saga of the inner Solar system, finds colonel Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) demoted to lead a ‘lost patrol’ of Martian trainees in VR combat sims, but he learns they are, at first, unprepared for actual fighting on the Martian surface.

Starship Troopers: Traitor Of Mars offers military sci-fi horror (sci-fight?) where “the future is everyone’s duty” according to Sky Marshal and scheming despot Amy, who plots against space marines and mobile infantry alike. The arachnids are legion, just as before, and although the space hardware and technologies remains fairly standard for Star Trek/ Star Wars type scenarios, there are some distinctive designs that distinguish this generic factory of war machinery from entirely run-of-the-mill space opera. Traditional SF, in the form of planetary romance, makes a strong counterpoint against sundry conventions of modern-SF space wars.

When Rico is stranded on the bug-infested Martian surface, his memory conjures a spirit, in the form of Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who was a casualty in the original live-action movie, Starship Troopers (1997). She becomes a ghostly goad for him to continue, and a familiar but inconstant presence that leavens the lone hero’s isolation after tactical abandonment. The movie plays with military stereotypes and cross-genre iconography, fielding comedy-of-errors pratfalls alongside stirring quips and imagery borrowed or perhaps curated from Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Aliens, and Halo.

It soon becomes a repackaging of clichés that eventually transcends the usually fatal flaw of any simplistic repetition of pithy one-liners and boots-on-the-ground machismo. There is courage and camaraderie that elevates the frequently grisly material (this movie earns its 15 certificate) from the schlock and terrorism routine of most animated sci-fi, and the style that leans towards photo-realism for the hardware and environments, but draws its artistic lines at defining the major characters without many obvious attempts to cross the uncanny valley. The players are rendered just realistically enough for a willing suspension of disbelief but lack sufficient veracity to blur the differences between artwork and photo. This approach to the animation effects is wise and, no doubt, saved the movie-makers a lot of money so this production could be easily affordable.     

In terms of sci-fi action or monster movie horrors, there are tons of gory fighting scenes, while the armoured soldiers make good use of their powered-suits, and jet-pack jumps to safety or into battle. Although it’s a foregone conclusion that downed Rico will be rescued from the red planet’s hell of bug swarms charging over the dusty horizon, and the human  villain’s plan to sacrifice a colony for its rebellion against Earth-based control is obviously going to be thwarted, the tensions and suspense are palpable throughout and the weirdly composed sense of vaguely Lovecraftian mystery that supports the movie’s story is worth a couple of extra points.  

“Would you like to know more?”

Saturday, 6 January 2018

American Assassin

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, and David Suchet

Director: Michael Cuesta

111 minutes (18) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate 4K Ultra HD  
[Released 15th January]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

Based upon a novel by Vince Flynn, this CBS production starts with a terrorist attack on a Spanish beach where civilians are slaughtered, including the hero’s girlfriend. A wounded survivor, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, Maze Runner movies, Teen Wolf TV show), becomes obsessed with revenge and transforms himself into a vigilante against Muslim extremists. Going beardy in Libya, almost suicidal Rapp infiltrates a terrorist’s secret base but, in the movie’s first plot twist, he is rescued and recruited by CIA deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, Alien vs. Predator).

She introduces novice Rapp to military mentor Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Birdman, RoboCop remake), a former US navy SEAL who trains Rapp along with other agents for an elite ‘Orion’ team. This training sequence includes an augmented reality scenario with VR head-gear. Hurley leads a mission in Turkey to catch a nuke deal in progress, and Rapp is teamed up with local spy Annika (Shiva Negar), going off-script, and into rogue action, but still managing to uncover evidence of the bomb-maker’s plans. When the heroes track down a mercenary physicist in Rome, interrogations mean torture on both sides of the spy wars, where betrayals, and violent confrontations with a profiled target, known only as ‘Ghost’ (Taylor Kitsch), eventually result in an epic, disaster-movie styled, climax.  

A gritty and graphic exploration of espionage schemes, American Assassin delivers its downbeat, genre-wise adventures with plenty of sharply choreographed stunts in tightly edited action scenes. Rapp seems a very unlikely hero at first, and O’Brien’s portrayal of him as an embittered everyman, who’s turned just as fanatical as the enemy forces that he opposes, is only sketched into place at the centre of a murky international conspiracy which proves to be a marked contrast to James Bond’s glamorous heroics. The character of Hurley is actually more compelling than the younger Rapp, and Keaton brings a much needed gravitas to an otherwise clichéd role. The set-up for a possible sequel is intriguing enough that a follow-up would be a welcome addition to the 21st century’s spy actioners.    

The 4K Ultra HD edition has superb image quality, and this movie really benefits from the HDR format where no picture detail is lost, even in the various low-light scenes.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Beyond Skyline

Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais, Callan Mulvey, and Valentine Payen

Writer & director: Liam O’Donnell

105 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Signature Blu-ray region B
[Released 8th January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary    

Aerial assault of a grandly gothic variety was the spectacular highlight of indie production Skyline (2010). Directed by brothers Colin and Greg Strause, it began like Cloverfield meets Independence Day, concentrating on the fates of citizens, and their reactions to alien conquest, so there was plenty of widescreen spectacle in disaster movie mode. The lack of Hollywood resources meant the movie ignored typical blockbuster upscale framing for a ‘big picture’ of global events, until a closing montage, but Skyline was exemplary as a modern weird sci-fi B-movie template, ejecting the warp core of SF epic structure, and sidestepping any bother with generic portrayals of political responses to a menace from outer space, or international defensive efforts to counter the invaders’ strategy.

Putting cult comic-book styled horrors back into a subgenre culture, Skyline offered city-stomping monsters hunting humans, while airborne mecha-squid scouts are launched from hovering alien base-ships, to roam around and probe inside buildings. Even when military help appears in the form of marine snipers and USAF drone bombers, the nuked mother-ship survives to rebuild itself, and its entourage of squid-bots salvage their own, with a leave-no-tentacle-behind policy.

Skyline delivered tremendous fun as briskly impressive sci-fi terror. It’s not a great movie like Starship Troopers (1997) that provided so many gruesome shocks, but it does match the savagely downbeat effectiveness of District 9 (2009) for imaginatively satirical verve, with an edgy protagonist and compelling exhilaration. Skyline fulfils the promise of its arresting poster artwork, offering far better pulp SF entertainment than Spielberg’s woefully inadequate War Of The Worlds (2005) remake, especially when the direction quite daringly refuses to permit mankind a knowingly easy salvation, with an engagingly witty genre-twist conclusion that cribs a switcheroo surprise from Scanners (1981). 

Although it’s a belated sequel, sci-fi action horror movie Beyond Skyline is also a terrific adventure that beguiles its victims into enslavement by strange lights. As before, this is not a Rapture event, it’s an apocalypse from above. Underground train passengers, stranded between stations, are prompted to escape but not to safety, led by L.A. cop Mark (Frank Grillo, Captain America sequels) and his wayward son Trent. 

The survivors move through the subway until dark tunnels are caved-in by a nuke blast. The weirdly squid-like aliens exert a nightmarish influence before again practising their head-ripping mayhem. Mass abductions by the body and brain snatchers result in plug ‘n’ play-along drone troopers. The grungy bio-tech of the mother-ship’s interior brings hell to Earth.

Like hitchhikers or stowaways aboard the alien ship, Mark’s group find themselves in the Golden Triangle of the Mekong delta. There’s plenty of gore fu and, when jungle fighter Kanya (Pamelyn Chee) finds an alien egg in the crashed ship, she seems like a contender for this movie’s heroine, but it’s actually the train-driver Audrey (Bojana Novakovic) who eventually takes on the role with admirable gusto.

In this entertaining sci-fi horror scenario, mere survival is not enough and Mark realises it’s necessary to fight back, and fight to the death. Thankfully, there are alien cyber-drones with human brains that retain some basic humanity, and the Lovecraftian punch-up finale results in a twist ending with a sudden escalation of hostilities into the realms of space opera. 

Building upon the Strauses’ successful reworking of classic sci-fi movies War Of The Worlds and Invaders From Mars, this welcome sequel boasts an undeniable strangeness, and its SF plot twists apparently intend to support an upscale mythology that promises further sequels, extending the franchise into at least a genre trilogy. 

Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Dark Knight trilogy

Casts: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway

Director: Christopher Nolan  

439 minutes (15) 2005/8/12
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner 4K Ultra HD

Rating: 10/10
Reviews by Christopher Geary

Comic-book fans might grumble about how much Batman Begins (2005), effectively a prequel to Warner’s existing franchise, as launched by Tim Burton’s monstrously flawed Batman (1989), draws upon Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns characterisation of the ‘caped crusader’, without crediting the authority of that revisionist version. However, I think the value of Miller’s influence upon this origin story has been grossly overstated. 

The only important screen credit that’s deserved by, and prominently given to, a writer not directly connected with this cinema offering is that of Bob Kane. Creativity is not the same thing as originality. Batman’s genre lineage has been traced elsewhere. I’d rather not get into nit-picking. The fact is that Christopher Nolan’s laudable, and exceptionally ‘practical’, action drama rejects the peculiar daftness that is more usually imposed upon superhero adventures (especially on media adaptations from the DC comics stable), and centres its generally downbeat narrative with a shrewd exploration of the psychological depths of its title character’s mortal fears, and lingering guilt (the young Bruce Wayne blames himself for the death of his parents), that’s twisted into an unhealthy obsession with revenge.

Christian Bale (American Psycho, Reign Of Fire, Equilibrium, The Machinist) brilliantly portrays the adult Bruce Wayne as a tragically haunted heir, embarking upon a fiercely existential journey into the mountains of China, after finding himself unable to remain in Gotham while burdened with painful memories. Bruce’s spiritual attempt to expose and fully comprehend the workings of the criminal psyche is a bitter struggle to understand his own nature, and find new purpose and meaning in life. Rarely have the motivations for a costumed crime-fighter to wear a disguise been examined so deeply or illustrated so well in a Hollywood product. Bravely, the director and star allow us to peer ‘behind the mask’ even while Batman’s wearing it. Batman Begins is an exemplary deconstruction of a vigilante crime-fighter in a master-class of superhero cinema that’s unmatched by the likes of The Punisher (either version), or the over-flashy Daredevil, and is certainly more illuminating, especially in terms of solid characterisation, than Sam Raimi’s over-praised Spider-Man movies.

Tutored in various martial arts by stony-faced guru Ducard (Liam Neeson - much better here, as a mentor figure, than in his Star Wars episode), but refusing to agree with the coldly extreme policy of elitism openly espoused by the well meaning but fascistic League of Shadows, Bruce confronts ninja death squads and strives to formulate his philosophy of justice as one suitable for maintaining order in the grimy hell of Gotham’s underworld. He’s aided by the righteous cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in a surprisingly restrained, yet nonetheless magnetic performance), obviously the beleaguered city’s future police commissioner, and the pioneering industrial scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, wry as ever), an admirably Q-like techie, while Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel (Katie Holmes, who also played a Rachel in Disturbing Behaviour, 1998), now a district attorney in Gotham, tries to provide the disillusioned hero with moral guidance, and love interest.

Neeson brings a much needed weight to early scenes, as Nolan’s non-linear story-telling format (which worked so perfectly in Memento), switching between Bruce’s childhood traumas and mental vacuity as an adult, threatens to derail the main plot before the intriguing narrative takes hold. Michael Caine makes for a splendid butler, and his aged Alfred is one of the thespian highlights of this drama. The secondary villain of the piece is deranged headshrinker Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes the Scarecrow, armed with a potent hallucinogenic gas to confuse and terrify his opponents. Apart from Batman’s ninja tactics, The Scarecrow’s actions help to provide the mystery with its best, and most inspired, moments of eerie gothic horror, and yet even the movie’s shocks and frights are understated. This is in keeping with Nolan’s familiar directorial style, as used to good effect in his remake of mystery thriller 
Insomnia. Batman the caped superhero is presented as a nearly mythic symbol of fear who’s just as scary as the vicious gangsters, hoodlums, and psychos that he sets out to destroy. In the wretched slums and perilous alleyways of Gotham, the dark knight is out to make sure everyone is afraid of walking the streets at night.

Batman Begins remains one of the finest comic-book adaptations of the current century’s superhero cinema cycle, and it delivers exciting chases, impressive widescreen spectacle, and plenty of assured character development. If nothing else, when you see the rugged new bat-mobile hit the streets, you will chortle at Gordon’s reaction: “I gotta get me one of those!”

Like its predecessor, The Dark Knight (2008) has no intro credits, just the famous Bat symbol emerging from a blue firestorm, then it jumps into an action scene. The Joker unmasks himself, bringing an unpredictable end to a tightly choreographed bank robbery, declaring, “Whatever doesn’t kill you... makes you stranger.”

What can a billionaire-playboy turned night-stalker vigilante do when a radical psycho clown threatens people in the city that the protagonist has sworn to protect? Operating so far beyond any traditional criminal’s code of ‘honour’ that rationality seems just a lost memory in a world gone bonkers, the Joker aims to make Batman understand that any genuine victory against calculated wickedness is merely a wishful dream that vanishes in broad daylight.

In this engagingly revisionist big-screen adaptation of Batman comics, what else can the lone hero do except simply endure the worst excesses of brutal anarchy and nightmarish chaos, as perpetrated by his new archenemy the Joker? It’s possible that his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman is now a Hollywood career-defining one for Welsh-born star Christian Bale. But Australian actor Heath Ledger is certain of a place in the history of comic-book movies due to his tragic death, shortly after the filming of his remarkable scene-stealing turn as the Joker was completed. Oddly enough, there was nothing to be found in Ledger’s merely average co-starring appearance, opposite the typically wooden Matt Damon in Terry Gilliam’s unfortunately flawed The Brothers Grimm, to suggest that Ledger was even capable of such a powerfully dramatic and savagely comic profundity of thespian brilliance as demonstrated here.

With garish clown makeup concealing his ‘mask’ on the inside (we’re not given any facts about the Joker’s past, because he tells eerily disturbing lies about his - probably awful - life story), the Joker is obviously the dark side of an already sinister Batman. Perhaps Ledger’s characterisation was influenced by the similarly-scarred hit-man Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s extremely violent Ichi The Killer, more than the gypsy clown Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), reputedly the primary inspiration for the comic-book’s original Joker.

Furthermore, in the torture video played by Gotham TV news, Ledger’s quirkily amusing tone of voice (“Are you the real Batman?”), pays homage to Cesar Romero’s fondly remembered Joker - in the 1966 film and subsequent TV series. And yet, leaving no doubts about the impact of his definitive performance, and adding yet another layer of complexity to his role, Ledger turns the camcorder on himself, dragging attention back from nostalgic whimsy, now speaking directly to camera, ominously, “See, this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.” The Joker parodies the face of contemporary terrorism. He’s off-the-wall mad, typically bad, and extremely dangerous to know. He’s a mockingly defiant critical response to Batman’s crusade against mob rule.

Aaron Eckhart follows a string of solid but largely undistinguished roles - in murder mystery The Black Dahlia, the confusing Suspect Zero, and sci-fi chase thriller Paycheck - with a tour de force performance as Gotham city’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent, a legal ‘white knight’ eventually traumatised into becoming amoral gambler Two-Face, a bitterly vengeful, psychologically twisted combination of both Joker and Batman, who casually decides victims’ fates by the flip of a coin. It’s worth noting that our costumed hero’s moral confidence and combative superiority has advanced from Batman Begins, so that villain Dr Jonathan Crane, alias Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who seemed a powerful menace for 2005’s Batman, is dealt with more easily here, and dismissed as a petty nuisance. Also returning to their supporting-cast roles in the previous movie, there is Michael Caine - as Wayne’s formidably deadpan butler and supportive confidant Alfred Pennyworth; Gary Oldman - admirably understated and quietly dignified again as a police lieutenant (soon-to-be commissioner) James Gordon; and Morgan Freeman - as Lucius Fox, serenely competent CEO of Wayne’s corporate and technical interests.

Setting new box-office records, and breaking the mould for any blockbuster sequel that astutely melds the fantastical antics of comic-book super-heroism with the gritty realism of mainstream action cinema, The Dark Knight is certainly one of this decade’s top ‘event’ movies. The success of Nolan’s classic as Hollywood product is hardly important, though. As the Joker asserts: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.” That message seems to be that a clever filmmaker really can have his cake and eat it. Nolan achieves varied technical and aesthetic ambitions, developing ‘Steadicam’ devices for hand-held usage of bulky IMAX equipment, which enables a dazzling and impressive picture to benefit from such detailed image capturing of key action scenes. Stunts are spectacular, and more convincing than in most comparable Hollywood thrillers. But how can the filmmakers top a lengthy road chase sequence, particularly one that’s climaxed by crashing a helicopter and flipping over a lorry? Well, how about demolishing an entire hospital block?

Although this epic sequel continues the narrative of Batman Begins, that movie’s superbly gothic visuals and architectural styling are abandoned in favour of Chicago locations, used here to create a more realistic universe for all the comic-book notions and tricks, much like Paul Verhoeven shot the ‘futuristic’ sky-line of Dallas to represent a re-developed Detroit for RoboCop (1987). Batman’s hi-tech gadgets aside, the jolting dynamic of action scenes in The Dark Knight has been accurately judged as equal to shoot-outs and chases and in Michael Mann’s powder-keg classic Heat (1995), where clashes between Al Pacino’s manic cop and Robert De Niro’s wily crook produced quite electrifying consequences of a similar nature.

The creative and precisely controlled use of sound cranks up tension and suspense during many confrontation scenes, which makes up for the cleverly hidden fact that Nolan has fashioned a terrifyingly sadistic crime thriller, oozing danger, dilemmas, and bone-crunching violence, yet distinctly lacking in bloody splatter. If compared to David Cronenberg’s gory Eastern Promises (another hard-hitting drama with a lone hero tackling a criminal conspiracy), it’s clear that, however bold its attempts to reformulate comic-book adventure in a down-to-earth manner, The Dark Knight inhabits a different universe to genre horror. As the Joker’s restless psychosis shifts into a fatally demented overdrive, it’s interesting to contrast his intimidating qualities with those of Dr Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter - one of the greatest screen villains of the previous decade. Despite Lecter’s penchant for meticulously planned outrage and eruptions of wild blood-lust, we are left feeling that Ledger’s ultimately chilling interpretation of the Joker as “an agent of chaos” has raised the bar for any such fascinatingly unpredictable murderous evil-doing in popular cinema, showing us a curious model of villainy that’s more astonishing than Lecter’s slasher antics because a troubling sense of peril, and our horrified reaction to it, is accomplished with keenly theatrical skill, without spraying pints of red stuff across the scenery.

But Nolan’s greatest achievement is the assured handling of ambivalent character developments in a cold light and a serious context, granting this peerless variation of Bob Kane’s now 70-year-old champion detective an immeasurably cool gravitas, one that blots out persistent memories of previous cinema or television adaptations, whether they were campy or not. The Dark Knight affirms its links to much original DC comics’ material, and skilfully integrates story-arcs and variant characters from Batman graphic novels in a uniquely persuasive and resonant manner where all the earlier works were comparatively unsuccessful or wholly inadequate in their attempts to realise a cinematic drama that clearly transcends the milieu’s inescapably juvenile origins.

For the greatest lone urban vigilante movie of 2012, in contrast to the heroic teamwork of Josh Whedon’s mega-hit Avengers Assemble, we need look no further than Nolan’s breathtaking The Dark Knight Rises. This hugely anticipated closer to the revisionist trilogy, pits a technologically futuristic protagonist against the super terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), who eventually turns out to be a brutish talking golem for the long-con vengeance plot that springs up from Wayne’s shadowy past. In his sheer physical strength, monstrous brawler Bane is a superior opponent for Batman. Bane is very different to the cult leadership of Ra’s al Ghul, the gothic insanities of Scarecrow, psycho anarchy of the Joker, or the homicidal gambling of Two-Face. Bane is more beastly and yet coldly dynamic. He strides or swaggers around Gotham city, much like Godzilla stomps over miniature Tokyo sets; his amplified voice like the giant lizard’s fiery roar. Bane’s animalistic cunning exposes all of Batman’s weaknesses, and his prowess in unarmed combat makes the fearsome ‘night hunter’ mere prey in chilling scenes of well orchestrated mayhem that unfold with militaristic precision. Once he acquires control of the fusion bomb, Bane blurs the lines between powerhouse mercenary and revolutionary.

In a wholly impressive story-arc, Nolan’s trilogy shifted from gothic fairytale, with its climactic assault on the symbolic citadel, to an expansive film noir, complicated by two femme fatales. If Batman Begins concerned reclamation of the night from evil, and The Dark Knight was more about losing the day (and so becoming an outlaw), this finale to the trilogy focuses upon a hero who fails in a battle, but then wins the war. It shows Bane’s emergence from a gloomy underground lair into daylight conquest, then has the broken hero re-enact the villain’s escape from a hell-hole into victory. Whereas Batman Begins showed how Bruce became adept at compassionate valour, trained by the far less chivalrous League of Shadows, he becomes the symbol of fear tarnished by failure in The Dark Knight, but that’s only as a prelude to crushing defeat when the seemingly unstoppable Bane trounces him, ushering in an ‘Occupational’ winter of discontent, before the dire situation goes nuclear with the returning hero’s desperate act of self–sacrifice.

Although it may be argued that a mid-air hijacking alludes to Bond stunts (specifically, the pre-credits sequence of my favourite 007 movie, Licence To Kill), this epic thriller offers more than just up-scale espionage thrills. There are greater mythic dimensions underlying the superhero and ultimate nemesis characterisations - as Wayne learns the difference between cliché aphorisms ‘suffering builds character’ and ‘poverty breeds criminals’ - plus a medley of themes covering war drama, edgily satirical political commentary, disaster movie, and romantic adventure, with gritty action again filmed in the glorious IMAX format.

Re-watching these fantastic movies, now released in a premier 4K Ultra HD edition, with the stunning picture quality of HDR, firmly establishes The Dark Knight Trilogy as the greatest achievement so far in superhero cinema for a singular character’s story-arc. Not even the franchised Iron Man or Captain America trilogies, from DC's rival stable Marvel, come close to matching the seriously imaginative verve of Nolan’s astonishingly exciting directorial vision.  

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley, and Nicholas Hamilton

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

95 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

Noah Hawley’s new TV series Legion might have cornered the market in surrealistic sci-fi about superheroes with psychodrama, but this genre movie, about the parallel universes of Keystone Earth and Mid-World, neatly - if not always deftly - explores the dreams of a quasi-mythical apocalypse that trouble fatherless young psychic hero Jake (Tom Taylor). Driven by his grim visions to run away from home in New York, Jake discovers a portal to the weird western realm where a battle of ages - a war between haunted gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba), and a magic man-in-black Walter (Matthew McConaughey), threatens both worlds, sacrifices family ties, and risks the boy’s own sanity.

After a decade in development hell, derived from Stephen King’s book series, The Dark Tower owes much to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz, with apparent designs on the young adult market, and cross-genre appeal that, narrative wise and cinematically, borrows from The Matrix’s chosen oneness and a swaggering cowboy styling that evokes Sergio Leone’s spaghetti shoot ’em ups and John Woo’s bullet ballet actioners. The inter-dimensional quest, which forms like mental etchings from Jake’s dreams of doom, builds up a new screen brand of synthetic but compelling character-based mythology, notable for the diversity of its influences, that includes folklore, comic books, and genre movies, and also embracing aspects or motifs from King's own oeuvre.

The iconic gunslinger is a Jedi-like knight, but with pistols forged, reportedly, from the legendary Excalibur’s metal. The strange time-warped west world has dead technology reminiscent of Mad Max’s wastelands. Like the twin towers of Lord Of The Rings, this movie’s central image riffs on Norse mythology’s Yggdrasil, and, as previously seen in Thor movies, with their convergence of ‘heims. Tellingly, the brand of this franchise project delivers character actions that speak louder than words, and so its spectacular climax of fantastical mayhem, and spells, overwhelms more routine exposition.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

1990: The Complete Collection

Cast: Edward Woodward, Robert Lang, Tony Doyle, Barbara Kellerman, and Lisa Harrow

Creator: Wilfred Greatorex

880 minutes (15) 1977-8
Simply Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Between his career-defining roles in genre TV shows Callan (1967-72), and The Equalizer (1985-9), British actor Edward Woodward starred in dystopian show 1990, a speculative SF drama that nowadays seems more prescient than ever. It is a grimly prophetic tale of sinister government in Britain but, whereas the original classic novel 1984 (1949), and its screen adaptations, were about fascism, this Orwellian scenario warns of the danger to society of enforced socialism, and it’s especially observant and relevant today because of the brutal government’s blatant refusal to accept criticism. Here, the people are policed by a Public Control Department, staffed by bullies and supported by a tyranny rubber-stamped by secret deals.

The programme’s animated title sequence is particularly striking. Two people standing in a white room, and this shrinking space makes the pair of captives into obvious prisoners, forced together, under a tortuous confinement of extreme detention. All they have left is each other as the walls close in about them, and a crucible symbolism is a quite profound visual statement of the show’s basic themes.

The futurism is limited to Anglo-dollars, ID cards, and compulsory TV. Indie news-hound Jim Kyle (Woodward) routinely evades state surveillance because his job would be largely impossible, and his life endangered, if they always know exactly where he is, never mind what schemes he gets up to. ‘Faceless’ is Kyle’s own ‘Deep Throat’ informant with furtive meetings conducted usually while parked side-by-side in their cars. As Scarlet Pimpernel references abound, the nets tighten around Kyle when suspicion falls upon him, just as if steel chains are made from tangles of red tape.

Fascinatingly detailed, there’s a brain-drain crisis of illegal emigration (including 500 exit visa applications per week), an opposition party leader becoming a mere cheer-leader for cabinet policy, an underground press ‘Facts’ leaflet sheet’s outlawed and eagerly quashed by boots-on-the-ground, and could the new Inspectors of Culture actually be censors? In its scripting of cynical class-war attitudes in civil service corruption 1990 boasts wit sharp enough to stab hearts-of-gold through a knife-proof vest. Kyle’s dalliance with Mata Hari-ish femme fatale Delly (Barbara Kellerman) brings him as much grief as satisfaction. Kyle investigates the regional establishments of so-called ‘adult rehab centres’ (ARCs), where many activists, dissidents, and other rebellious souls are simply crushed by ECT or drugs into zombies, and even serial killers can be turned into dutiful servants.

Rounding off the first series, Kyle is stripped of identity cards, and his human rights, and then declared a non-citizen, just a nameless number. Down on the street with the down-and-outs, he’s down, but not out of the fight, and our hero returns to a prominent action with a clever blackmail plot against his enemy. The most notable guest stars include: Ed Bishop, Edward Judd, and John Rhys-Davies. Some type-casting in evident: Ray Smith is a union leader, replete with shop-floor accent; John Savident portrays an ebullient Home Secretary; and Graham Crowden excels as a foreign VIP academic.

For series two, Lisa Harrow replaces Kellerman as the show’s leading lady, practicing new charm offensives while prospects for a general election are worrying all concerned. Kyle’s insistence upon a non-violent campaign against the Public Control is threatened by a lone gunman. When his identity is revealed, Faceless turns out to look like a fusion of the two Ronnies into one. Black marketeers make a mockery of rationing. Private cops Careguard foresees today’s G4S security contractors. Ordeal By Small Brown Envelope concerns the systematic harassment by the state, aimed at crushing any civil resistance to new official policy. But it’s worse than postal threats when they send those special bailiffs round with keys to a downgrade a family’s home.

Some of the sting plots hatched by Kyle & Co, against the oppressive regime, are like the tactics and strategy of Eric Frank Russell’s novel Wasp (1957), an infamous book about a movement ranging from psychological warfare to guerrilla mayhem. Using indirect action, not just open defiance, the crusading heroes of Kyle’s plucky gang of radicals eventually turn the game tables on authoritarian power. Tony Doyle (Who Dares Wins) is good value throughout this show as Kyle’s bullish chum, import-export agent Dave, smuggling Brits to Europe and USA, here still bastions of freedom, and leading the charge when muscle is required to calm or conclude a tense situation.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is a crisply theatrical piece with a chess tournament’s mind-game overshadowed by a kidnapping plot against the black-hats’ own queen. The final episode reaches a wholly predictable climax after a solo protestor in Trafalgar Square disturbs the pigeons with a self-immolation stunt. Can this grim situation end in anything but violence with a bitter irony? Although parts of this - especially its modest technology - are tellingly dated, this drama is educational, and incisive about political criticism, so perhaps it ought to be shown in schools.

Presented in very good condition for a BBC programme of its era, this complete series of 16 x 55-minute episodes (previously available separately, as two seasons), is re-released on a DVD box-set of four discs.  

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Whisky Galore!

Cast: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Naomi Battrick, Ellie Kendrick, and Kevin Guthrie

Director: Gillies MacKinnon

98 minutes (PG) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow blu-ray region B
[released 6 November]

Rating: 10/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, and there are so many of them on VideoVista and its sister site The Zone that I would hope you have by now, then you will know that I’m no fan of remakes. Especially when the original is considered to be something of a ‘classic’. To be fair, although I’m more than familiar with the 1949 film made by Ealing, one of my favourite studios, I approached this new version with high hopes. I see in my 2011 review of the original I mentioned Ealing’s slyly subversive tone, at odds with the cosy ‘little England’ atmosphere thought by some to inhabit their films.  

In fact, while Ealing’s output was often anarchic and anti-establishment, the final reel tended to impose some form of belated moral censure. Hence Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, seemingly having got away with murder realises he has left a confessional memoir in his prison cell in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), the forces of law and order finally catch up with mild-mannered bank-robber ‘Dutch’ Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and the gang in The Ladykillers (1955), having pulled off their heist, end up by murdering one another. Similarly, while the inhabitants of the Outer Hebridean island of Todday stave off the lack of uisge beatha ‘the water of life’ by salvaging ‘export only’ spirit from a sinking cargo ship in Whisky Galore (1949), by the end of the film the whisky drought is back in force. I was happy to see such nonsense was avoided in this remake, or ‘reimagining’ as the producers’ prefer.

The novel Whisky Galore (1947) by Compton Mackenzie, was based on the running aground of the S. S. Politician off Eriskay in 1941, while carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky and a substantial volume of cash. In 1918, Mackenzie had been chosen as one of the promising ‘younger generation’ of novelists by Henry James in an essay J.B. Priestley described as, ‘a piece of literary criticism so involved, so inscrutable, that some of the writers it dealt with do not know to this day whether he was praising them or blaming them.’ Priestley went on to observe in 1928 that Mackenzie had not lived up to the promise of his early novels Carnival (1912), and Sinister Street (1914), and, ironically, he is probably best known now, if at all, for Whisky Galore. Mackenzie’s sequel to Sinister Street was filmed in 1935 as Sylvia Scarlett, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The plot to Whisky Galore is laughably simple. In the midst of World War Two, the island of Todday is suffering the dreaded whisky drought brought on by rationing. During a fog, a passing cargo vessel, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground on the notorious Skerry Dubh rocks and the crew abandon ship. Seeing this as the workings of providence the islanders prepare to salvage some of the 50,000 cases of whisky bound for the United States. Unfortunately, the ship has run aground on a Saturday and, as a flotilla sets out from the island, the church clock chimes for midnight and the start of the Sabbath, upon which no task of work may be undertaken. Despite the delay the islanders do indeed manage to liberate a substantial portion of the cargo before the vessel sinks. The local Home Guard commander Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard) foolishly decides that protecting the cargo from looting comes within his remit, and sets out to confound the islanders’ salvage operation, and then catch them with their bounty when they outwit him. 

At the heart of the story is the local postmaster Macroon (Gregor Fisher), and his melancholy realisation that his two eligible daughters are about to take the first steps into matrimony which will deprive him of the solace of their company. Peggy (Naomi Battrick) is in love with local schoolmaster George (Kevin Guthrie), and seeks to extricate him from under the thumb of his domineering mother. Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) is in love with Sergeant Odd (Sean Bickerstaff) an El Alamein veteran, who has returned to the island to train the Home Guard, as second-in-command to Waggett. 

Macroon Sr. explains to Odd that for him to marry Catriona there must first be a prenuptial celebration without which the marriage cannot take place, and the celebration requires whisky. No whisky, no celebration; no celebration, no wedding. Odd defers to the obvious blackmail, and slated to guard the shoreline facing the sinking craft he allows the villagers to overpower him in their mission to salvage the booze. Having stowed the cases of scotch in a hidden cave, the islanders are betrayed by the local innkeeper who sees his livelihood at risk from the abundance of free whisky. Waggett calls in the Excise and a frantic operation is launched, first to hide the drink during a house-to house search, and then to spirit the spirits away from their hiding place.

A curious sub-plot concerns the presence on the island of the mysterious Mr Brown, posing as a tweed salesman. Macroon listens in on Brown’s telephone call to Waggett’s wife asking her to urge the Captain to secure a red attaché case from the wreck. Obviously, this would prove an impossible task for Waggett to perform and the message is wholly intended for the eavesdropping Macroon. The case proves to contain personal letters from the recently-abdicated Edward VIII to Mrs Simpson, and other correspondence hinted as relating to an interesting offer of royal reinstatement from a certain continental despot, the second such reference in the film. Brown is obviously some lackey of Whitehall, but why would the letters be going to America? The purpose of this sub-plot, beyond mere padding, is hard to ascertain, perhaps the writer is vehemently republican and wanted to avoid the film being chosen for a royal premiere?

The film ends with both pairs of lovers united in matrimony, and Waggett temporarily in disgrace after a case of ammunition he returned to the mainland was discovered to contain whisky, hidden there during the house-to-house. Macroon finally cracks a smile and the island gives itself up to drinking and dancing. To say I enjoyed this film while on the wagon (only two beers in five weeks), says much for the good-natured entertainment it provides, although, as I lay in bed waiting in vain for the oblivion of sleep, my mind did tend to linger on the three and a half bottles of whisky (and one whiskey) I had stowed in a downstairs cupboard.

The extras reel consists of interviews with the principal members of the cast. What comes across is a genuine affection for the material and an obvious enjoyment of the whole exercise. The younger members of the cast, that is Battrick, Kendrick, Guthrie and Bickerstaff, have nothing but good things to say about the experience of performing with Fisher and Izzard. Slainte.