Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Jurassic Games

Cast: Ryan Merriman, Perrey Reeves, and Adam Hampton

Director: Ryan Bellgardt

95 minutes (15) 2018
High Fliers DVD Region 2

Rating: 5/10
Review by Donald Morefield

A straightforward mash-up styled combination of Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games,
The Jurassic Games posits a chilling future where corporations create designer blitzes of mayhem to please insensate viewers inured to violence by shoot ‘em-ups. The varied ‘contestants’ are ten murderous convicts fighting for life and a freedom awarded only to the winner, the last one standing after surviving lethal zones, that include a maze and a minefield, of danger from rampaging dinosaurs and from each other. The game’s arenas are populated with some fiendish, but all virtual, monsters and yet if a player dies in the VR game he or she dies in actual reality from summary execution by poisonous injection.



The movie delivers ghastly televised impressions of the death-mongers in this dystopian media sensation, not to mention examples of a wholly distracted population enjoying and  laughing at, or fretting over alliances and betrayals, in this latest, sometimes charmingly off-beat bread ‘n’ circuses quasi-satirical version of an ever-popular gladiatorial scenario. Of course, the burgeoning subgenre of death-games and killer sports includes European sci-fi The 10th Victim (1965), classic actioner Rollerball (originally 1975, remade 2002), Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man (1987), Martin Campbell’s No Escape (1994), Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000), and Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon (2001). For particular influences upon The Jurassic Games, there’s also The Condemned (2007), Gamer (2009), and Arena (2011), not to mention this movie’s key inspiration, the two genre blockbuster franchises that began with Jurassic Park (1993), and The Hunger Games (2012).



So, prepare to get your dino-movie fix with ragingly hysterical human prey versus T-Rex terrorism and raptor-mania. The Jurassic Games boasts much better than average visual effects and offers commentary interviews with the show-runners asking if there’s a moral defence for “execution as entertainment.” That said, there’s nothing here that’s seriously new, except a welcome degree of novelty in its concept, but it’s lively enough with action scenes, and its showbiz-must-go-on (despite hacker intervention) plot twists, to maintain the interest of keen genre fans before an inevitable ‘game over!’ finale.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Commuter

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, and Patrick Wilson

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

87 minutes (12) 2018
Studio Canal Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st May]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary   

Ever since French movie Taken (2008) jump-started mature British actor Liam Neeson’s career as a contemporary action-hero, his intelligent performances have graced enough premier thrillers to match even diverse Hollywood giants like Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone. After working with the Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra on Unknown (2011) Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015), Neeson continues their winning international collaboration with The Commuter, yet another modern noir exemplar.  

After losing his insurance-company job, family man Michael MacCauley is on a homeward train where he meets a mysterious blonde (Vera Farmiga, Orphan, Source Code, TV show Bates Motel), who offers him a chance to learn what kind of person he is. Is this Die Hard on a runaway train, again? At first, no, because this feels like David Fincher’s The Game (1997), as Michael’s increasingly weird behaviour in his efforts to spot a suspect actually makes him seem creepy to other passengers. After a fight breaks out, a tricky situation escalates to kidnapping reports and more dangerous criminality when Michael is expected to ‘condemn a stranger to an unknown fate’. Within lines of interrogative reasoning (Who doesn’t belong? “Why are you going to Cold Spring? What’s in the bag?”), and the coolly deceptive detective story unfolding with care and attention to details, The Commuter is a thriller about an unbiased hero whose charming warmth belies his grim determination to stop the bad guys.  


The Commuter also owes a substantial debt to the genre classic Narrow Margin (original 1952, remake 1990), but it’s gifted with a bunch of sharply etched characters, displacing their obvious roles playing stereotypes on a metro train journey. An intriguing conspiracy scenario with a fast series of hair-raising stunts, a blistering climax with excellent special effects, an engagingly witty ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment of irregular group heroism, and then an admirable finish with a lesson in strong morality, add many features to a fairly familiar product.


Neeson’s previous movies with director Collet-Serra need further mention here. Unknown concerns a bio-tech conference in Berlin. After a car accident, Neeson’s character, Harris, wakes up from four-day coma. Trauma worsens with identity crisis and an imposter living his with Harris’ wife Liz. Essentially a spy thriller, with a ‘Jason Bourne’ vibe and plenty of chase sequences, Unknown benefits, like many espionage movies set in Germany’s once-divided city, from Berlin itself also being a character in the story. Basically, a tale like Die Hard on a plane, Non-Stop has Neeson portray a lazily drunken air marshal who is placed under extreme and extraordinary pressures to find a terrorist and a bomb on a passenger jet. Run All Night is the story of an embittered mafia thug who finally finds redemption in his own tragic death.


Of course, these individual movies aren’t intended to be a genre franchise and yet they’re all action productions imbued with thematic links about the deconstruction and rebuilding of heroes, in plots with compelling character-arcs that are centred on, if not locked into, connections between the ambitious director and busy star, who obviously developed an intuitive and progressive ‘short-hand’ for their work together. Unknown has an assassin with amnesia of his mission and target who starts a new life. Non-Stop concerns a deeply troubled policeman who’s failing everybody in his life, but he eventually redeems himself. Run All Night shows how a mafia hit-man loyalties to his son and to his best friend in the mob prove to be incompatible with life, in a family, or otherwise.


The Commuter is about an ex-cop who, eventually, returns to detective work because he can, quite instinctively, do the job better than most. Neeson’s different roles in all these intelligent movies are never just standard actioner heroes. Skilfully, the director and star shape their assorted stories of brief heroism into character studies in extremis where the hero emerges from a background of regrets or professional failure. In these movies, the iconic cities (Berlin, New York), a plane, and a train, are sundry containers like a crucible or a chrysalis for the much anticipated surfacing of an astutely moral force for good, but not perfection, that awakens in a decidedly flawed character.         

Although Neeson’s interview for The Commuter jokingly suggests a movie filmed entirely in a car might well be a follow-up project for him, and director Collet-Serra, a supporting character’s parting line in The Commuter’s epilogue says it all: “Next time, I’m taking the bus.”

Friday, 18 May 2018

eXistenZ

Cast: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Ian Holm

Director: David Cronenberg

98 minutes (15) 1999
101 Films Black Label
Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st May]

Rating: 9/10
Review by Steven Hampton

It wasn’t entirely obvious before 2005 but in retrospect it’s clear that David Cronenberg’s phenomenal VR drama, eXistenZ, actually beats The Matrix at its own game. How much this opinion might result from a considerable devaluation of The Matrix because of its sadly disappointing sequels remains one nagging question. I am certain only that I prefer to revisit the always-fascinating realms of Allegra Geller than the split and spliced worlds of Trinity and Neo. Even after at least half a dozen viewings, I suspect there are yet more revelatory layers of schizophrenic characterisation and rich thematic allusion in eXistenZ waiting to be discovered but The Matrix, plus Reloaded and Revolutions sequels, gives up all its trilogy’s mockingly futuristic, pseudo-mythic secrets with far fewer repeats. Placed alongside the brilliantly devised SF-horror classic Videodrome (1983), eXistenZ surely is Cronenberg’s most provocative and intelligent work, and it makes complete nonsense of such ‘designer’ chillers as Tarsem’s The Cell (2000), that now appears to be merely like a twisted children’s playground in comparison to Crony’s incisive commentary on visionary cyber-culture and virtual crimes.


One of the greatest millennial movies, eXistenZ barricades its protagonists inside a genre nightmare from the very limits of a broken reality. For the private demo of an immersive game, the heroine Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) attracts a homicidal stalker while novice marketeer Ted (Jude Law) strives to protect Allegra from the crazy killer. As a dotted line between fantasy and reality begins to blur into a single seamless contiguous imaginarium the real-life dangers that the couple sought to escape from merge, startlingly, with inner-space worlds. Access to the game environment is by organic-looking meta-flesh consoles that wriggle or squirm as twitchy gateways for the random group of new-product testers, with the 12 players’ bio-ports connected via umbilical-style cables. Introduced as the ‘game-pod goddess’, the unwary Allegra is shot by a lone gun-man armed with an absurdist pistol of made of bones, a bio-mechanical weapon that fires human teeth as bullets.


With heroes on the run from bounty-hunting assassins in the service of a fatwa, eXistenZ becomes a road movie about a questing journey on futurism’s information superhighway. Nervous as a sex-phobic virgin, Ted’s panicky response to his first porting inadvertently causes a neuro-surge that locks Allegra out of her own game, the original and only copy of eXistenZ. Ian Holm plays the engineer who examines Allegra’s damaged pod and it’s faux-medical scene is reminiscent of Holm as android Ash performing a post-mortem on the hideous face-hugger in Alien (1979). Game-character based attitudes promote episodic/ schizoid behaviour in players. Allegra’s off-screen change into a skirt, after wearing-the-trousers in a partnership with reluctant hero Ted, marks a switcheroo from femme fatale to damsel in distress. Or is that a role-reversal?


Typically for Cronenberg’s cinematic oeuvre, the directorial focus is upon intensely sexual imagery of penetration anxiety and parasitic infection, ranging from uncomfortably icky to disturbingly gross. Mutation describes the experimental narrative functions, where “everything used to be something else”, and evolutionary story elements develop along a conceptual bridge - from just ‘playing’ at science fiction to practical concerns like working in bio-tech farming systems. The GM ‘special’ dish at a Chinese restaurant is plainly not a very popular choice for lunch. Some assembly is required to weaponise the main course. It serves up food for thoughts on the morality of misapplied gadgetry. In this SF drama’s bleeding-edge world, even cuddly rubbery mechanisms might catch a grotesque disease.


The revolutionary’s cry of “death to realism” echoes Videodrome’s climactic “long live the new flesh.” So, why not join the revolution at Cortical Symantics..? Hey, we’ll have a few laughs, or maybe not. But, “what if we’re not in the game anymore?” OK, survivors! Let’s all get ready for transcendence.



Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Singularity

Cast: John Cusack, Julian Schaffner, and Carmen Argenziano  

Director: Robert Kouba  

89 minutes (12) 2017
Thunderbird DVD Region 2

Rating: 5/10
Review by Christopher Geary   

Near-future sci-fi drama Singularity is about Kronos, a super-computer that’s much like the machine antagonist in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), created to end wars or at least automate decision-making processes, and eliminate delayed responses and possible human errors. Politicians would not want to attack enemies because of disinformation, or lies, would they..? Actually, it’s not about Kronos, or a ‘singularity’ event that devastates human civilisation but leaves planet Earth still green and habitable. It’s 97 years after the apocalypse when young techno-ingénu Andrew (Julian Schaffner) becomes an instrument of discovery and change. He teams up with somewhat unwary survivalist Calia (Jeannine Wacker) to find a mythical sanctuary. Both of the youngsters are hunted by giant robots.

The advent of A.I. almost never seems to be a good thing in movies. From early cinema’s first robot wars, to infamous sci-fi names like Alpha 60, HAL 9000, Proteus IV, Roy Batty, Skynet, Red Queen, Decepticons, and Ultron, etc. science fiction’s intelligent machines do not trust or even respect many of their biological creators. Their confrontations invariably result in ethical conflict and global devastation. Singularity’s trailer looks quite appealing. However, the full-length picture is rather less entertaining.


Reportedly, the movie harvests footage from the low-budget European feature production Aurora (2013-5), financed by a crowd-funding campaign. The product was scooped up by a US company and revised with extra scenes of Hollywood actor John Cusack. Singularity suffers from the twin faults of patch-worked confusion and frequent bouts of mild tedium. Its post-prologue chapter starts like Robot Overlords (2014), but with a serious intent. It finishes with reflections upon the twist-ending of Knowing (2009) an interstellar diaspora from planetary disaster, but minus that earlier fantastic drama’s emotional resonance.


The disconnected strands of plot are merely stuck together without any obvious narrative connections, or rationally coherent intervening development. Like humanity, too much of the acting here is predictable and disappointing. ‘Look up there, in awe,’ the director may well have said - to the young actors, several times, while filming on some beautiful Czech locations. ‘The awesome visual effects will be added later.’ Overall, it’s mainly an exercise in digital effects used to fuse the wraparound scheme to a failed post-holocaust drama of young romance. Robot meets girl. Girl loves robot, until human enemies appear. Capture and rescue actions ensue. A new Eden is searched for. You can probably just guess all of the rest... However, beware of the happy ending on another planet!



Monday, 14 May 2018

Rawhead Rex

Cast: David Dukes, Kelly Piper, and Ronan Wilmott

Director: George Pavlou  

90 minutes (15) 1986
Arrow Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Ian Shutter

Written by Clive Barker, and based upon his own short story, this monster-movie set in quaint Ireland kicks off at the Neolithic site of a sacred pagan fertility cult, where a local church’s un-heavenly chorus of hallelujah, is purposely inter-cut with exterior scenes, just as a stone column is toppled over by a lightning strike on the ill-fated farmer’s field. The imprisoned Rawhead becomes a stomping ogre, pursued by the vengeful American hero Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes), asking a doomed police detective, “animal, vegetable, or mineral?” Practically unstoppable, looking like a cursed heavy-metal band’s over-sized mascot, the blarney beast cometh and goeth in modern gothic rage, roaring like thunder.


Although one pregnant housewife survives an early home-invasion assault, there seems to be some definitely edgy proclivity for the monster to stalk and attack courting couples, and so big Rex fulfills any typical slasher movie’s sensationalism for the subgenre’s have-sex-and-die horribly trope, notable here during the enraged creature’s demonic rampage.


No, my editor insisted, you can’t re-interpret Rawhead Rex as a Brexit metaphor about Irish border controls. Really? But, but... Creepy images of a “God Almighty!” variety now infest the pretty countryside locations while the storyline unfolds upon fierce horror cues that contrast moments of tragic drama with the equally unsubtle conventions of outright black comedy. Rawhead tips over a mobile home while he’s terrorising and tearing apart a caravan site. 


Elsewhere, the almighty Rex leaves a trail of burning cars and mutilated corpses. In twisted dementia, corrupted verger Declan (Ronan Wilmot) helpfully explains the dark mystery of ancient Celtic horror: “He was here before Christ, before civilisation. He was king here!” Police are useless against the onslaught and only add to the body-count. However, in the magical climax, centred on a graveyard’s standing-stone circle, incurious tourist Mrs Hallenbeck (Kelly Piper) becomes the movie’s unsuspecting heroine.


Magnificently restored to a 4K standard, this grisly fantasy seems iconic today. Although it's not a classic Barker story, and far from being the finest movie adapting anything he wrote, Rawhead Rex succeeds on its own terms as an Irish supernatural horror with good shocks in both night and daylight settings, where the ugly and brutal slayer crashes through some of the otherwise beautiful rural scenes. As a formidable clash of a dark past against the fragility of a supposedly enlightened present, Rex’s monstrous intrusion upon an idyllic landscape remains something of a gritty tour de force, it's overall effect amusingly akin to the climactic sequence of genre classic Night Of The Demon (1957).

Friday, 11 May 2018

Space Truckers

Cast: Dennis Hopper, Charles Dance, and Debi Mazar  

Director: Stuart Gordon

96 minutes (12) 1996
Second Sight
Blu-ray region B
[Released 14th May]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Sci-fi comedy is very hard to do effectively, properly, or even fairly. Created by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, in its multitude of forms - the radio show, the novels, the TV adaptation, and the cinema version - remains the pure gold standard by which almost everything else can be judged as lacking. Hitchhikers is an affectionate parody of science fiction themes, postmodern tropes, and genre traditions that obviously breaks its own rule-book and transcends the framework of ‘spoof’ to become a genuinely impressive deconstruction and reconstruction of its varied genre ideas. High-concept SF is radically mixed and matched with whimsical humour to become something more than the sum of its parts. By comparison, the cult TV series Red Dwarf is less friendly towards its subject matter. It simply takes the piss out of sci-fi, without much care for its usually strictly rational frameworks or beloved pulp adventuring in time and space.


The styling of Alien (1979) was partly identified as ‘lorry drivers in space’ and Space Truckers, in which the great Dennis Hopper’s grouchy but loveable hero John Canyon hauls GM square pigs from Mars, is basically a sci-fi version of road movies like Convoy (1978), meets off-world colonial western Outland (1981), offering a very different sci-fi aspect unlike the usual naval design ethos of Star Trek or the air force looks and fighter pilots modelling of Star Wars. Canyon is a decidedly old-school rebel who does not ‘buy options’ of customised comfort for his rig. Desperate waitress Cindy (Debi Mazar, ‘Spice’ in Batman Forever) needs a ticket from the space Hub to Earth, and so along with novice pilot Mike (Stephen Dorff, S.F.W., Blade, Feardotcom), she hitches a ride on Canyon’s freighter. Shane Rimmer (world president, named Saggs!) and George Wendt (playing a ‘company man’ to his core) make the most of their welcome guest-star roles, and Sandra Dickinson is Betty, the voice of Canyon’s spaceship-computer.


Mostly bright and cheerful, Space Truckers delivers a dose of lively humour with plenty of witty satire in a fast-moving storyline. A vengeful space pirate Macanudo (Charles Dance) is a cyborg menace, especially to sexy Cindy, in one of the movie’s rom-com sequences. However, the primary threat here is a shipment of rogue robots, war machines designed to destroy any military force, essentially re-programmed for the invasion and conquest of Earth. 


Coming from Stuart Gordon, the director of celebrated horrors Re-Animator (1985), and Lovecraftian classic From Beyond (1986), this space movie might have seemed like an unusual choice, but Gordon had previously also made cult sci-fi romp Robot Jox (1989), and the internationally successful Fortress (1992), and to Space Truckers he brings an expert understanding of subgenre concerns for a modestly budgeted production, knowing just how to honour and subvert fandom expectations and re-work clichés into something far more entertaining than typical genre fare.


In addition to Alien, this picture also pays obvious tributes to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Roger Vadim’s pulp-inspired Barbarella. It hardly matters that, viewed here in glorious hi-def, we can see harness wires during some of the ‘flying’ in zero-gravity stunts. Most of the big special effects sequences are still pretty good though, and contribute so much fun to a highly amusing adventure giving the heroes a happy ending, one that’s blatantly corny and yet remains a satisfying conclusion.



Disc extras: new interviews with Stuart Gordon, composer Colin Towns, and art director Simon Lamont.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Killjoys: Season Three

Cast: Hannah John-Kamen, Aaron Ashmore, and Luke MacFarlane

Creator: Michelle Lovretta

430 minutes (15) 2017
Universal Playback
Blu-ray region free

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Recent space opera movies have sometimes been disappointing. The Star Wars sequels proved to be merely watchable rehashes of jedi-isms and spectacular battles. Star Trek was an ultimately ruinous restarter for the venerable franchise, mired in super-heroics, dismal comedy (Simon Pegg is particularly awful as Scotty, an insult to the memory of James Doohan), and overdone lens flare. Although Metal Hurlant failed as sci-fi/ fantasy anthology, TV shows are generally still doing a better job of space opera narratives than big-scale movies.

Exploring the colonial industrialisation of the Solar system, The Expanse concerns miners working in the asteroid belt and the machinations of home planet Earth, and impressively stylish visual effects are matched by fascinating character arcs and highly intriguing plot-lines. Dark Matter is a more playful adventure about a team of mercenaries and the show blends post-cyberpunk techno-chiller tropes with interstellar action pitched on a subgenre scale between Star Trek’s politics and Star Wars’ conflicts.


Dark Matter’s genre counterpart Killjoys is a noir-punk about bounty hunters. Both shows benefit from strong female leads. The rogue heroes-versus-overlords influence of Blakes 7 is apparent, but general pulp sci-fi themes are a greater influence than any specific TV series. Killjoys: Season Three pirates and then serves pop-culture puns from fantastic media and it’s cooler than kitsch, scripted by genre savvy writers cloning cyberpunk DNA and rebooting spacer western clichés, and turning out sharply witty dialogue as if they’re visiting our time-zone from the day after tomorrow.

“What if the monsters look just like you?”

This greatly entertaining Canadian production offers slickly fetishistic techno-futurism on industrialised alien planets, and Killjoys often belies its TV budget (with visual effects by Rocket Science) and so it looks far better than most indie sci-fi movies that are obviously trying too hard. With episode titles like ‘A Skinner, Darkley’, ‘The Lion, The Witch, & The Warlord’, ‘Necropolis Now’, and ‘Wargasm’, this series presents three likeable heroes for dangerous ops in Quad space, where fun-loving bounty-hunter Dutch (played by Hannah John-Kamen, who also portrays Dutch’s enemy Aneela, and is soon to be seen as ‘Ghost’ in Ant-Man And The Wasp), boldly goes where angels fear to fly, and doesn’t “have time to be careful”. 



Dutch is a team-leader for RAC agents D’avin (Luke Macfarlane), and his techie brother Johnny (Aaron Ashmore, Warehouse 13). They serve legal warrants (“the warrant is all”), break heads and often forget about taking down names. As the ship’s voice named ‘Lucy’ Tamsen McDonough is perhaps the most sarcastic computer character since Marvin, the paranoid android. Bionic performance-artist Viktoria Modesta makes a unique opponent as hack-mod villainess Niko. The heroes’ newly recruited nerd girl, socially awkward Zeph (Kelly McCormack), breaks free of typical comedy-relief role-playing and a typically sulky demeanour. 



War against parasitic aliens, the hive-mind sociopathic Hullen, looms over fate’s horizon and Dutch needs to assemble a militia army, but finds that enemy forces are brutal, and the morality of heroes (“the war is all”) is tested far beyond humane limits, while facing deadly betrayals and physical traumas. The season’s finale features the enemy’s armada arriving in planetary orbit just as the heroes prepare for battle in a kill-zone where Quad space simply isn’t big enough for both Dutch and her look-alike Aneela. Of course, there’s also a twist from the green-dream of memory. Killjoys is amusing, exciting, imaginatively detailed sci-fi action that shows the expensive cinema productions how it should be done. Binge-watch it. You know you want to.