Monday, 10 April 2017

Brotherhood Of Blades

Cast: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, and Dong-xue Li

Director: Yang Lu

117 minutes (15) 2014
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Second Sight blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Donald Morefield

Brotherhood Of Blades (aka: Xiu chun dao, 2014) upholds the familiar wuxia traditions while adding Hollywood style polish that Chinese movies have strived for since millennial productions, at least. During the fall of the Ming dynasty, imperial assassin Shen (Chen Chang) arrests a clique of eunuchs, but one wizened reclusive target is allowed to escape unscathed, spared the kung fury of Shen and his gang. The mercifully freed suspect was once a godfather of the secret police and he looks a bit like Gollum, so he always appears guilty and untrustworthy even if he’s actually falling victim to political prejudice. A loose-limbed plot spins off from this act of mercy, but this movie’s basically historical scenario is salted with quasi-dystopian themes.  


The royal court is greedy and corrupt, such that only bribes change anything. Options for survival here seem limited to subterfuge and betrayal. Honour and integrity are seen as a flaw of individualism, and dramatised as wholly unaffordable weaknesses in dealings with authority. Characters wrestle with the burdens of conscience whilst striving for matchless excellence and unattainable heroism. Qualifying for promotion is a formality when secrets are kept, and after debts are accepted. Righting wrongs, such as buying the freedom of a young courtesan or protecting a doctor’s daughter, are just fantasies of a lonely dreamer of peace. Villains are cowardly back-stabbers and brutal show-offs. Superhuman action is a given for this genre and there’s plenty of splattery combat in self-defence and vengeful battles of wits and weapons.



The HD transfer for BOB on blu-ray looks superb, and this edition gets the very best from its production values, historical set designs, and cinematic lighting. Fans of this genre are in for a treat!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Tomboy

Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard, and Anthony LaPaglia

Director: Walter Hill

96 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Label DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Jeff Young

Walter's Hill’s usual urbanite western styling is re-purposed in more ways than one for this potentially controversial movie, which supposes an illegal sex-change operation that makes this a sci-fi thriller like an action-packed variation of The Skin I Live In. It delivers a nightmare castration for hit-man Frank Kitchen. Michelle Rodriguez’s dual role as Frank and (although a distaff name remains unsaid on screen) 'Frankie' makes Tomboy (aka: The Assignment) a quite grimly violent psychological thriller. This plays merry hell with gender stereotyping themes, and it wreaks havoc upon male fears of emasculation, while delivering a perversely inclined drama of feminine, but not fem-Nazi, empowerment.    


Sigourney Weaver plays the genius doctor, depicted as a self-proclaimed medical artist in a straitjacket who is formally interviewed, at length but in an episodic format, by a prison shrink (Tony Shalhoub, best known for TV series Monk). These scenes crackle with twisty tensions of esoteric criminality and misapplied authority that are disturbingly mirrored in the explicitly personal and social predicaments faced by Frank’s makeover into ‘Tomboy’. Although it is basically just a weird kind of rape-and-revenge movie, there’s plenty of fine detail in the plot’s novelty, and its ramifications for the mad surgeon and her traumatised yet sympathetic victim.    


With its low-budget moods and unsubtle ironies, Tomboy certainly is one of those cheap, but decidedly cult-worthy B-movies, like Hill’s own Johnny Handsome (1989), that re-mix juicy clichés with brisk skill and furious enthusiasm for off-beat and sensational material. Fans of Rodriguez should enjoy the picture’s archly satirical aspects as this celebrates the star’s typical screen persona (see Resident Evil, S.W.A.T., Avatar, Machete, etc.), while it also provides her engagingly flawed ‘heroine’ with an expression of troubled vulnerability. Meanwhile, Weaver turns in her best performance in years. She’s not just aloof but unyielding in an acetic characterisation that’s unnervingly convincing, in spite of its obviously comic-book inspired core of super-villainy that sits above humanity while being cursed with the same condition as the rest of the mortal world. 


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, and Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates  

133 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner blu-ray region B
[Released 27th March]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Back in the 1920s, fantastic beasts could be found all over the place, apparently. Hiding underground or flittering about in plain sights that nobody would believe you ever saw. This is a lively prequel to Harry Potter and one that’s hatched - with a perfectly judged timing to chime loudly with Marvel’s first venture into sorcery - from the Rowlingverse of wonders just waiting to be discovered far beyond the ken of unsuspecting muggles.


Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, and the sneering space villain of Jupiter Ascending, plays Newt, a British eco-wizard who travels to New York and gets involved with secret investigations into magical creatures and what to do with them, if they are considered even vaguely dangerous. In WW1, Newt “worked mostly with dragons” but now he struggles valiantly, against a largely uncaring world and the mostly sinister authorities of this colourfully esoteric realm, to preserve the secrets and existence of various strange creatures of vastly differing sizes and temperaments. Not really a traditional fantasy variation of Doctor Strange, this movie owes a substantial debt to Damian Kindler’s Sanctuary, a Canadian TV sci-fi series that also offered a fairly impressive medley of wondrous pseudo-crypto-zoology, but Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them presents its creatures for cutesy laughs and modest Disneyesque charm, with only mildly chilling menace that emerges from a smoky darkness.


Of course, this being a franchise addition to 21st century world-building, the conservation of werediversity is in direct conflict with its own secret society of Men In Black fabulation promoting a conspiracy to weaponise weirdness and, there’s no doubt, enslave many of the other dreamland critters. There’s an especially troublesome demiguise - an endearing platypus shoplifter that’s escaped from Newt’s TARDIS-like suitcase, to wreck havoc in places wherever sparkly merchandise is displayed. Larger beasts provide the main spectacle and there are some carefully wrought urban fantasy sequences to challenge the best imagery that any of the current superhero cinema can deliver. A sequel is in the works for 2018. 


Monday, 20 March 2017

Property Is No Longer A Theft

Cast: Ugo Tognazzi, Flavio Bucci, Daria Nicolodi, Salvo Randone, and Mario Scaccia

Director: Elio Petri

126 minutes (15) 1973
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow Academy Blu-ray regions A+B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

The 19th century’s protest by a French anarchist aside, the notion that possessions only belong to a few by right is tested and restated in this Italian comedy of ill-manners, new to 2K hi-def in the UK since its 2013 restoration and re-mastering from the production’s original negatives.

Property Is No Longer A Theft concerns the misadventures of a small cast of fairly symbolic characters. Suffering from acute social and philosophical envy in a European class war, a bank accountant named Total (Flavio Bucci) suddenly resigns and starts a brand new life of crime in Rome. Targeting a local butcher (Ugo Tognazzi), Total steals a knife, a hat, and then quickly escalates to burglary. Overnight, he graduates from cars to kidnapping.


Total prefers his women passive for a kinky fetish, and says “lie down... like a steak.” His captive, Anita (Daria Nicolodi), remains chatty while naked but seems willing to play dead for him. Total’s spree of reckless defiance of convention and order continues with a series of increasingly farcical episodes inciting a serious risk that “thieves become revolutionaries.” But, the underdog’s rebellion aside, “What’s there to laugh about?”

There is a lot of talking to the camera, in scenes that reveal and revel in characteristic foibles. The movie looks askew at the differences between the haves and the have-nots, and spends time (that most precious human commodity!) conjugating the Italian verbs of   possession and possessiveness. In a vividly surrealistic sequence about home defences, director Elio Petri concocts a display of hardware that’s like a cross between a modern art exhibit and security trade show.


“Arresting people is a wonderful thing,” enthuses the police brigadier put in charge of the investigation into Total’s misdeeds. Having introduced the police, the narrative expands to focus upon career crook Albertone (Mario Scaccia), who leads a gang on a heist which Total interrupts, but he’s only there to help complete the robbery while his own capacity for violence and self-destruction increases - along with twitchy habits of scratching every annoying itch.

Soon, raucous cries of “Stop thief!” wake up the wealthy residents of a block of swanky flats, from where a twisted love-triangle develops. Yet there’s no honour among thieves. Betrayal is inevitable when corruption spreads over every side of the law. Total remains quite stubbornly resistant to exploitation by his betters and would rather steal a gold pen than accept a blank cheque specially written just for him. Underworld crowds gather to mourn a dead master-thief and, after one amusingly forthright speech, the really brutal antagonist wrings the scrawny neck of this political satire.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Sole Survivor

Cast: Warren Otteraa, David Leeming, and Alana Tranter

Director: Christopher Jacobs

87 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Miracle Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

It’s no use hunting on the excellent and usually-reliable IMDb for Sole Survivor, because it’s not there. But track writer-producer-director Christopher ‘Chris’ Jacobs through to its previous identity as Lone Wolves and there’s all you need. His debut project is re-issued misleadingly with a new title and DVD cover showing hovering alien motherships strafing burning cities – which is entirely inaccurate. There are no alien motherships. No alien invasion fleet. For this is an entirely different kind of apocalypse. No zombies or runaway viral pandemic either. Just the world made strange. Filmed around Melbourne, using the Wurundjeri aboriginal tribal lands – to whom thanks are duly extended, ‘no actual science was harmed (or used) in the making of this motion picture’, despite its muffled lunges into relativistic particle physics.

We are living amidst a very healthy upsurge of indie movie-productions, as vigorous and gloriously-flawed as all that implies, with new faces and new low-budget spins on themes, pivoting only on the invention and ingenuity of their creators. Here, surly crop-headed Private James Conroy (Warren Ottera) of the Second-Division West has anger-management issues, and plays paramilitary games with guns in the forest, always alert, always preceded by his four-barrel shooter. His voice-over narrative drifts within an over-obtrusive soundtrack, with a debris of occasional indistinct phrases surfacing. “Date unknown. I’m still here. Lost track, still don’t know what happened...” Maybe the imprecision is deliberate atmospherics to imply dislocation? “It looks like everything’s the same, but it’s not... everywhere, things are out of place.” It’s the apocalypse, James, but not as we know it. Everyone vanished – or killed, “a few survive; I survive.”

A glimpse of a devastated city... There’s been no bomb, but there’s radiation, and red-flashes on his RUN life-detector alert him to mutant creatures, horned skull-face red-vision monsters in flickering distortions, what they are, or where they’re from, is unknown. He’s haunted by flashbacks of lost domesticity with his ex, and it’s only when his mobile blips – he answers it “Suzy?”, that things begin to fall into place.

On the down-link is bespectacled Gary Freeman (David Leeming), marooned as Space Shuttle ‘Polaris’ attempts to dock with his 426 orbital station. Both the retro-Shuttle – already made long obsolete by NASA, and the station itself are convincingly modelled by Jacob Matyr, enhanced with visual effects by Leo Flander. The word ‘Laika’ on the bulkhead also hints at affection for earlier space race ephemera. But Freeman is a ‘spaceman’ with a failing life-support system, on the brink of hitting the ‘Purge Atmosphere’ button to hasten the end, when contact with the ground revives hope. They’ve gone from Lone Wolf… to Sole Survivors.

At first he’s suspicious, can he believe Freeman? Was the Moon-landing fake? Conroy sets out to locate a signal-boosting sat-dish to amplify the link which so far equates to “pissing on a coin from the top of the Eiffel Tower.” He meets a thought-projecting monster in the shape of a cute little girl, but realises the subterfuge in time to blast it to messy pulp. He descends into a suitably-dark effluence channel where he meets... himself, or at least, another self, impaled and dying. Then, under Freeman’s direction, he instead erects a makeshift array himself, out of wired-in colanders. It picks up Dr Elizabeth Harding (Alana Tranter), and more bits tumble into place. From a two-hander, two becomes three as the action neatly vaults into triple-hazard threat. If the dialogue is occasionally stilted, and the nasties are Doctor Who aliens come adrift, attacking too fast for clear detail, the action carries its own effective momentum.

Elizabeth is a theoretical physicist, appropriately seen against a revolving vortex of spinning sub-atomic particles. She’d been working with fanatical Dr Edward Fischer (Dan Purdey) on “the bleeding edge of possibility,” opening overlapping inter-dimensional portals with no regard for consequences. The consequence being that Earth is part-sucked through a singularity-portal, part-“trapped in a parallel dimension.” The idea of ‘tearing holes in space and time’, punching wormholes into new worlds, provides a certain uniqueness, but in truth, not much more than a regular Doctor Who storyline. “We have the key,” explains Dr Liz helpfully, “but not the door.”

In a high-tension climax, Freeman’s in orbit, donning his spacesuit to conserve diminishing life-support. Conroy battles his bloody way across dereliction through converging monster-packs to reach her bunker, while Elizabeth packs a pistol across the hi-tech installation to hunt down the mad scientist (who, incidentally, was also responsible for ‘terminating’ her astrophysicist parents!). By the time they blast their way through to Fischer he’s midway into horror-transfiguration, and they must neutralise him before they all mutate into a broken world. Needless to say, the ensuing mega-explosions re-set “the nature of space of time” back onto its correct path, allowing Space Shuttle Polaris to safely dock with Freeman’s orbital habitat, and offering a new chance for Conroy to reclaim his flawed life. While only she chooses to pursue the infinite and ‘move on’ through the portals.

Inventive and playful in the kind of way that, say, early Roger Corman was, this movie is further evidence of a vigorous and gloriously-flawed upsurge of indie movie-productions, whether you call it Lone Wolves or Sole Survivor.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Last Days On Mars

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, and Goran Kostic

Director: Ruairi Robinson

94 minutes (15) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

On Mars “a shrunken sun sank below the horizon and darkness came. Stars gleamed hard and bright through the tenuous atmosphere. A meteor dug a small crater under the palest of moonlight.” In his introduction to New Writings In SF #13 (1968), John Carnell comments, “once, many years ago, the author Sydney J. Bounds worked in the engineering department of London’s Underground system but gave it up for the more precarious life of a full-time writer.” By the time I met Bounds in his book-crammed Kingston-upon-Thames home, he was surviving proudly and impecuniously as a professional story-smith by a strategy of writing at an impressive rate for every available market. Royalties from movie-rights would at least have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter. But he died on 24th November 2006, before this adaptation of his short story went into production.

Archivist Roy Kettle points out that “Bounds didn’t write many novels – just five, but he wrote 100+ short stories which almost invariably appeared only in British SF magazines and original anthologies. However, rather out of the blue, one of his stories, The Animators, was picked up and made into The Last Days On Mars in 2013 (a few years after his death). I rather think it was because the screenwriter, Clive Dawson, spotted it in the anthology where it first appeared because he had the book for the reprint of Arthur Porges’ The Ruum which, apparently, he’d hoped that Hammer Films would make with his screenplay.”

The anthology – Tales Of Terror From Outer Space (1975) was a Fontana paperback original edited by that devotee of the esoteric and the macabre, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, as part of his Tales Of Terror anthology series. And it’s startlingly good, with more than a passing glance at our Red Planet solar system neighbour. Ray Bradbury’s I, Mars introduces the escalating madness of the last survivor of a Mars colony haunted by phone calls from his earlier self. Then Robert Bloch’s carny huckster Ace Clawson gets devoured by a real-life Girl From Mars. For just the 45p cover-price there’s also Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss’ breathtakingly audacious Heresies Of The Huge God, Ralph Williams’ The Head-Hunters (from Stories For Tomorrow, 1956) anticipating the Predator movies franchise, Robert Sheckley, and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Porges’ nail-bitingly tense thriller The Ruum (reprinted from The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1952) – with prospector Jim Irwin relentlessly pursued by an implacable alien weapon left behind in the Canadian Rockies some hundred-million years ago.



The Animators comes around midpoint, previously unpublished, but later picked up and reprinted in Creepies, Creepies, Creepies edited by Helen Hoke (Franklin Watts, 1977). And Ruairi Robinson’s movie shows the advantage of taking an 11-page short story and expanding it, rather than attempting to compress a full novel down to movie-length. There are some minor switches in the interests of racial diversity and visual appeal, a couple of gender reassignments to Bounds’ originally white all-male personnel, but the plot development holds together remarkably well during its transfer to the big screen. The deserts of Jordan stand in for the Martian landscape, with occasional vegetation digitally removed.

“Sidney J. Bounds has had much experience in dealing with assorted horrors, as his many anthologised stories will testify, and he handles The Animators with his usual skill,” comments Chetwynd-Hayes. “The scene is set on the ill-fated planet Mars, but the end results are hell-bent for Earth.” And there are some obvious reference points, John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (2001), where the dead spirits of an extinct Martian civilisation are unleashed to possess the bodies of the miners responsible for disturbing their tomb. And the David Tennant Doctor Who episode The Waters Of Mars (2009), in which a water-borne virus infects and corrupts the human colonists of the bio-dome, which must be destroyed before the ‘Flood’ contagion can reach Earth. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that Bounds story precedes them both, and teases around the rim of speculation. Nothing as outré as extinct Martian cities, merely the possibility of long-dormant microbiological organisms suspended deep beneath the regolith for the millions of years since the warmer wetter Mars that NASA Rover-probes indicate.



The jaunty tones of Jack Hylton’s Blue Skies Are Around The Corner (1938) deliberately contrasts the gathering storm-front beneath authentically dour Martian skies, dust-waves of “the first big one of the season” approaching to engulf Tantalus Base One in which the eight-strong crew have been sitting out their six-month stay... with the 19 remaining hours ticking away before they’re lifted off to the orbiting ‘Aurora’ for “six-months home in a floating coffin.” Until the darkness closes in, Mars swallowing up the puny human toe-hold on the world, leaving only the airlock lens illuminated to resemble a single prescient eye.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute ruse before nightfall, Marko Petrovic (Bosnian-Serb actor Goran Kostic) returns to investigate the test-site of an earlier bore-sample that seems to indicate the presence of ancient microscopic bacterial life. Intent on keeping the discovery for himself he uses the pretext of fixing a broken sensor. Richard Harrington watches him from the clunky Mars Bug, until he’s shocked to see a sinkhole opening up to swallow the geologist. Using the second Bug, an already irritably fraying Captain Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas), is “barely holding it together” as he and Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) prepare to undertake a rescue. Dalby disobeys protocol and climbs down the pit. She also disappears. Both of them are dead, but not for long. Soon, there are two sets of footprints leading away from the pit.


Liev Schreiber, who plays Vincent Campbell, has a heavyweight CV that includes the Scream horror trilogy. Welsh-born writer-actor Tom Cullen – who plays Harrington, also has presence and some impressive movie credits, including an episode (The Entire History Of You) of TV’s Black Mirror and – for those who like that sort of thing, the faux class-nostalgia of Downton Abbey. Olivia Williams – who plays vexed confrontationally-barbed colleague Kim Aldrich, worked with Roman Polanski on The Ghost Writer (2010). They are part of a strong cast. The eerie rasp of over-exerted breathing inside helmets is effective, as is the claustrophobic hallucinatory descent into the sinkhole’s soft-focus darkness.

In Bounds’ story it is Shorty Pugh’s body that Harrington retrieved from the pit, and buries in a shallow grave. Exposure to the bacteria reanimates the corpse. “Then, slowly, it set out across the flat and desolate land with plodding steps. A naked dead thing that moved across the night-dark dust, moved steadily on a direct course for the distant Base.” In the movie the shattered helmet results in the same condition, unsuited zombies Marko and Dalby cross the rift valley back towards base with driller-killer instinct. But, although there’s a fair amount of furious action-hazard, the space helmets and chaotic red-light alert-strobing sometimes limits expressiveness and make it difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom, or why. And there’s no clear confrontation with the reanimated dead, just hints and glimpses of charred and rotting features obfuscated behind shattered face-visors. Where more clarity would help punch out the story there’s no gratuitous shock-horror, no Walking Dead or Z Nation moments. No George A. Romero zombies.



Brunel is wounded – Kim’s microscope betrays the bacterial cell-division infection in his bloodstream, his face tracked with shadow-lines of contagion, before he turns violent, and dies. Taking the precaution of strapping his body down, they inject an antidote, he twitches against his restraints, but the retroviral effect is temporary. The survivors retreat from the resulting mayhem to the hydroponics dome, using a conduit to return through blood-trails and wreckage to transmit a sky-link Mayday distress-call to the orbital ISC Mission Control, only to be pursued back by the zombie Marko. “I was planning on taking a lot of unnecessary risks,” quips Campbell with bitter irony.

Eventually only three remain – Vincent Campbell, Rebecca Lane (male expedition metallurgist in Bounds’ tale, now played by Romola Garai), and panicky mission psychologist Robert Irwin (British actor Johnny Harris of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, 2009) escaping across the Mars night in a solar-powered Bug with battery-power dropping, intent on reaching the lift-off point, with that hanging Cold Equation that she’s infected. “It’s too late for her,” protests Irwin. Should they leave her? Campbell says no. She resolves the dilemma by running off and suicides by removing her helmet. Following her footprints in Mars-sand, Campbell reluctantly stoves her head in with a stone to pre-empt her reanimation.

A significant difference here is that in the short story Brunel is the last die, and “later, no longer human, he joined the living dead aboard the ship. It rose into the purple sky on a column of flame and on course for Earth.” The movie is a little more nuanced. Campbell arrives at the shuttle lost in swirling dust, only to find that the zombies got there first, leaving a trail of dead. As they ascend to orbit, he struggles with an infected Irwin, before ejecting him through the airlock. Little spheres of tainted blood float in space. “This must end here. We can’t let it get back to Earth,” he insists. Campbell messages his report, and prepares to burn up on re-entry. Mars must remain a quarantined world. Unless Mission Control rescues him first..?



No blue skies around the corner. As an adaptation of Bounds’ story, it would have been nice if the film could have been a tad better. But would Syd have approved? Chances are he would. He’d certainly have enjoyed becoming part of the Universal Studios continuity back to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And at least it would have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Doctor Strange

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Mads Mikkelsen

Director: Scott Derrickson

115 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Disney DVD Region 2
[Released 6th March]

Rating: 8/10
Review by John Paul Catton

First, I have to declare some vested interests; I’ve been a fan of Marvel Comics ever since I was about six years old. Having said that, I realise that I’m not exactly the target audience for this film as Doctor Strange is aimed at a new generation of fans. It’s trying to introduce a new character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also trying to bring in mainstream moviegoers more familiar with Star Wars or Harry Potter. So here it is at last, directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, 2005; The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, 2008) and written by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson himself.

I admit that I went into the cinema with a sense of cautious optimism. I was determined to give it a fair chance, but hopefully not be too much of a gushing fanboy about it. I also didn’t want to dismiss it too quickly if it didn’t meet up to my expectations. A live-action Doctor Strange film, with cutting edge CGI to do justice to the trippy visual concepts featured in the comics, has been one of the most anticipated events in ‘superhero movie’ history. So how could it live up to the hype, the promise, and the dreams that we’ve had ever since the 1970s? Fortunately, it’s brilliant. 

It’s not just ‘interesting’, or ‘fairly good considering the Hollywood formula’, it is awesome in every sense of the word. After 15 minutes I went into a trance state and stayed there for the next hour and a half (IMAX 3D cinema, you see). Doctor Strange is intelligent, scary, witty, touching, and visually gorgeous. It’s got all of those things in spades, because it’s striving to be accepted as a character piece, not just a plot-driven spectacle. In my opinion it succeeds, because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. He’s incredible - and utterly convincing. By the end of the film, you are in no doubt that he is the Master of the Mystic Arts. He’s ably supported by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, and Madds Mikkelsen in the cast, with each actor’s performance fresh and full of energy.

Unless you’ve been living in the Dark Dimension for the last couple of years, you’ve doubtless heard of the controversies regarding the casting of The Ancient One, Wong, Mordo, and even big Ben himself as the title character. The PC sniping put Derrickson in an impossible ‘lose-lose’ situation, which he constantly acknowledged and explained in interviews. Well, we all know how Hollywood works! Go in with an open mind, and just watch the film for the quality of the acting.


Despite my enthusiasm for the story, there are still things with which I was disappointed or puzzled about. There is the matter of the pacing. We first see Kaecilius steal pages from the Book of Cagliostro, which presumably takes place before the film’s main action. Then we see Strange’s car accident, his rehabilitation, his search for a cure, his journey to Nepal, his training with the Ancient One, and then Kaecilius turns up again to kick ass. How long did Strange’s spiritual journey take before he became Master of the Mystic Arts? What was Kaecelius doing during the time? Did it take months, or even years, to decipher the spells written on two pages of parchment?

This nitpicking, however, doesn’t detract from enjoying the movie as a whole. A huge thank you must go to visual-effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti (responsible for the Oscar-nominated VFX in Guardians Of The Galaxy, 2014) for creating a cinematic experience that comes close to recreating the psychedelic creations of the original Doctor Strange artist, Steve Ditko. The influences of those visual effects reads like a huge shout-out to the history of film and art trippiness: Inception, The Matrix, Altered States, 2001: A Space Odyssey, M.C. Escher, Mandelbrot set fractals, and of course Ditko himself. It’s no wonder that Ceretti and his team have received another Academy award nomination. 


Okay, so I might have veered into fanboy gushing after all, but the thing is - audiences actually want to see this succeed; even the individuals who didn’t take to Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Doctor secretly want to see people love it. This is going to be the story that will fascinate a new generation of dreamers, just as the comics did. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Inferno

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Irrfan Khan

Director: Ron Howard

121 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony 
Blu-ray regions A B C

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A sequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), this latest adventure properly begins with Prof. Langdon (Tom Hanks) waking up injured in what appears to be a Florentine hospital, where he’s suffering from apocalyptic visions while being stalked by a female assassin. Initially, our genius hero’s amnesia (the word ‘coffee’ remains on the tip of his tongue, but he instantly recognises a Botticelli painting) complicates puzzles he must solve in the pursuit of a biotech weapon that threatens plague - a virus with culling capacity. “Killing billions to save lives? That’s the logic of tyrants.”

Colourful and exotic locations abound, after a train to Venice, and a W.H.O. jet flying to Istanbul, and Inferno rattles along with plenty of spectacle and action, and slick stunts, worked carefully into sundry detailing of its code-breaking, puzzle-solving plot. But there seems no easy humane solution to humanity’s looming crisis of global over-population. Is the billionaire super-villain’s cause just? Should an inspired genius attempt mass-murder to save the human species?



Although these movies are often silly and frequently preposterous, they are thrillers not documentaries, and should not be expected to maintain strong narrative logic when they are dealing with the layering of fantastic themes, and the engrossing mysteries of belief systems. Nobody (and movie critics are especially included!), ever demanded that every Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Indiana Jones picture made perfect sense, and those iconic heroes are, quite obviously, the main inspirations for the character of Langdon, so why dump vitriol upon this trilogy of screen adaptations of Dan Brown’s novels?     


The bonus disc includes two featurettes (21 minutes each), one about the overpopulation debate, and one exploring the literary influence of Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy and its relevance to horror and the future of our species. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Deepwater Horizon

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson, and John Malkovich

Director: Peter Berg

107 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

This disaster movie is based on a true story from 2010 about an oil-rig fire, regarded as the worst environmental tragedy in American history. Actor turned director Peter Berg has a chequered career behind the camera that really started with the stag-night comedy of ensemble farce Very Bad Things (1998). He followed that cult success with the more populist and under-valued action thriller The Kingdom (2007), which firmly established Berg as a name to watch. Superhero parody Hancock (2008), was a feature all but ruined by the typically dismal Will Smith’s gurning efforts, and sci-fi adventure Battleship (2012) proved a bit too derivative of Transformers, Independence Day, and War Of The Worlds to avoid pigeonholing as brainless popcorn entertainment. Happily though, the gritty war story Lone Survivor (2013) salvaged Berg’s reputation as a director capable of balancing serious action with heartfelt drama.       

Continuing his partnership with star Mark Wahlberg as the producer, Berg gathers a top notch cast of seasoned veterans including Kurt Russell and John Malkovich for key roles in this biopic. Deepwater Horizon manages to pull together a vaguely documentarian style, packed with the sort of technological detailing previously seen in movies like The China Syndrome (1979), and a grittily realistic sense of heroism reminiscent of cinematic landmarks highly critical of corporate malfeasance such as The Towering Inferno (1974). Despite its raft of obvious genre touchstones - lifeboat queues during the fire-storm are bound to recall Titanic (1997), this is an impressive Hollywood production with a solidly engaging build-up of suspense before the awesome pyrotechnical effects of an industrial accident where “hope is not a tactic” for survival.


Early in this movie’s terrible day at work, there’s the minor shock of a bird strike on the big helicopter that flies a shift of replacement crew out to the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig, and this blatant bad omen is unsubtly echoed by the intrusion of another avian doom-bringer when a pelican crashes through a window into the drilling platform’s support ship. These two admittedly curious but not particularly strange incidents are forgivable as film-making elements of narrative foreshadowing and cultural symbolism. They both fit perfectly into an evocative action drama about mankind’s hubris when faced with geological forces that prove fatal when underestimated. The movie’s sudden descent into a metaphorical hell of shouting and panic is superbly orchestrated, as the rig’s crew are trapped in nightmarish mayhem lit only by fire. The crisis could have done without its praying scene, but that’s a peculiarly American affectation which, perhaps unintentionally, indicates that many of the social problems in the USA are rooted in the big wishes of traditional beliefs not the wisdom of modern practical rationality.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Byung-hun Lee

Director: Antoine Fuqua

133 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Modernised rather than being revisionist, this unexpectedly good remake of director John Sturges’ classic 1960 western pulls together a main cast, led by Denzel Washington (The Equalizer remake), and Chris Pratt (from Guardians Of The Galaxy), and eagerly updates the story of mercenaries charged with an heroic mission. When mining town Rose Creek is taken over by capitalist bully Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the cowed townsfolk are led by newly widowed Emma (Haley Bennett) into hiring assorted sharpshooters led by vengeful Chisolm (Washington), and Farraday (Pratt). The line-up includes a legendary killer named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), and his knife-throwing protégé Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), infamous scalp-hunter Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), usually at odds with Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and the one that few will remember, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).


With its entirely new batch of gunslingers, the drama applies a considerable effort for the task of establishing the characters in meticulous detail, while also surrendering to a need for creating suspense using narrative elements like the foreshadowing of crosses in some carefully framed shots. As director, Antoine Fuqua boasts an excellent track record with a CV featuring a high standard of action pictures, including his remarkable cinematic debut The Replacement Killers (1998), the special-ops mission Tears Of The Sun (2003), tribal adventure King Arthur (2004), assassination thriller Shooter (2007), White House home-invasion Olympus Has Fallen (2013), and - following cop drama Training Day (2001), and vigilante thriller The Equalizer (2014) - this is Fuqua’s third outing with Washington as its star. Considering the filmmaker’s genre-surfing, use of superb character-actors in central roles, and keen avoidance of obvious political realism in favour of playful stylisation, it is perhaps quite surprising that Fuqua never succumbs to any of the glaring faults of movie hipster Tarantino, or his various deluded copycats.


Rich in spectacle, extraordinarily well-paced, and building steadily towards a foreseeable, but nonetheless exciting climax of gun-play, Fuqua’s movie fully deserves a whole family audience, because it eschews the authentically messy qualities of Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003), or the elegiac tone of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), for something that is much closer to evoking the same re-energised traditions of personal integrity and larger-than-life heroism as Lawrence Kasdan’s equally magnificent Silverado (1985).


Monday, 23 January 2017

Invasion Earth

Cast: Phoebe Delikoura, Darren James King, Charlotte Gould, Nigel Thijs, and Dave Shaw

Director: James Twyman

107 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
101 Films DVD Region 2

Rating: 5/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

There was a low-budget 1966 British sci-fi film called Invasion, in which Lystrian aliens isolate and terrorise a remote hospital, near Blackburn. There’s a curious bonus element in that the aliens are played by oriental actors, including Yoke Tani and the very lovely Tsai Chin, a future Bond-girl who also recorded a mildly disreputable novelty song titled School In Cheltenham. All of which has very little to do with the low-budget 2016 British indie sci-fi film Invasion Earth, in which a disreputable bunch of reprobates are isolated in a remote rehab unit where they’re terrorised by aliens. Except that both sets of ETs also wear the kind of latex stretch-cat-suit that Britney Spears wears in the Oops I Did It Again video.

Further evidence, if it’s required, of the robust health of home-grown film-making, this debut project by writer-director James Twyman is resourceful and inventive within its obvious budgetary limitations. And it’s very much a game of two halves. The story of eight dysfunctional young offenders sent to an island ‘Rough-It-Out’ rehab clinic, with actual location sequences done on Clagh Vane near Ballalough in the Isle of Man, close by where Norman Wisdom once lived. They tried to make them go to rehab but they said ‘no, no, no’… until the alternative was more punitive sentencing, so – grudgingly, they agree to a spell in this ‘fixer-upper’ place. “Welcome to the Dark Ages,” they quip, as there’s not even a TV! Dr Carson (David Shaw) – who sets the stylus down carefully on his vinyl LP play-in grooves, is the self-help guru in charge, a therapist with e-book downloads, and a Jeremy Kyle-style TV-presenter called Johnny Pierceson (Jon-Paul Gates) intent on exposing him as a ‘cowboy’.

In the tough-love ‘cheesy bullshit’ Circle Room dialogues, we get to know each individual back-story and break through their low self-esteem problems. And there are strong performances from Darren James King as short-fuse racist Derek, in Jackson Pollock splash-shirt and swastika neck tattoo, his right-wing anger-management issues fuelled by his father’s death by IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq. Cameron Bell plays nervous obsessive-compulsive Simon, an anorexic and would-be transsexual who never wanted to play with his Action Man figure, and prefers to be called ‘Cheryl’. Jonathan Jules is likeably amiable as Tyrone – the original butt of Derek’s offensive animosity, who is only here because he was framed by his dealer brother. Phoebe Delikoura as junkie YouTube former-celeb Vicky, burned-out by major-label manipulation, “whatever happened to just honest music?” With ex-SAS Thomas (Nigel Thijs) as strong-arm enforcer with a convenient military experience story for Derek and a dead-addict sister story for Vicky. Despite some stilted scripting, this all has a certain authentic truth, so far so good.

Carson cracks his ward’s defensive shells in one-to-one therapy, reducing Derek to a tearful emotional mess – hey, he’s just a crazy mixed-up kid. Gary (Cavan Holsgrove) is a failed football protégé with a severed cartilage who simply needs weed to help him forget. “Nobody said this was going to be easy,” clichés Simon/ Cheryl, while suicidal substance-abuser Kelly (Sammy Johnston) with survivor-guilt following an air disaster, manages to gauchely utter “that horizon actually makes me hope that there’s a better life out there for me.” Well – just as we’re getting to know and grudgingly like the characters, it’s about to get a lot worse for Simon/ Cheryl, and no, there’s no future for Kelly.

Because the working title – ‘Into The Light’, refers to the film’s second strand, promisingly signalled by the Arthur C. Clarke quote “two possibilities exist, either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Well, we are not alone, as footage of the approaching alien fleet, hacked from the Hubble, tends to indicate. And people start getting purpled to death – purple light being the effect-of-choice used by the aliens, well, Prince isn’t using it any longer! A vindictively oleaginous Pierceson gets zapped, as does the rescue copter, and then Carson’s car.

Brightly sex-addicted Ada (Charlotte Gould) promises to show you her tits if you can identify a Casablanca (1942) movie-quote. She bonds with ‘Cheryl’ in a make-up session, and then seduces Thomas while he’s supposedly watching Vicky while she’s locked-up enduring painful cold turkey. Her agony is immaculately illustrated by a haunting Set Me On Fire, written and performed by auburn-haired chanteuse Isabella Crowther. And as though withdrawal ain’t skin-rippingly bad enough, Vicky gets assaulted by a ‘creepy psycho’ alien with spidery claws and dubious dress-sense too, until her eyes glow eerily and she goes on a slasher knife-rampage. As the black kid, Tyrone self-predictably gets it first. 

Until Ada, as the last one standing, leaves a voice-message – ‘this is a record’, and buries it in the sand. The giant UFO on the DVD-cover hovers over her only in the movies final few moments. What’s more problematic is why the alien fleet has crossed the vast interstellar wastes of the galaxy in order to terrorise a disreputable bunch of reprobates in a remote rehab unit? Like the Lystrians did in the 1966 British sci-fi film Invasion. Unless this episode is supposedly representative of what’s happening in other locations across the globe, and this is – as the strap-line says, ‘Mankind’s Final Stand’? Yet this sporadically-enjoyable movie is further evidence, if it’s required, of the robust health of home-grown film-making. Expect more from James Twyman’s next project.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Hell Or High Water

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, and Dale Hickey

Director: David Mackenzie

102 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Studio Canal blu-ray region B

Rating: 5/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Redneck brothers Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers with a solid plan concocted by Toby, the smart one, often jinxed by ex-convict Tanner, the wild one. Their crime spree is pursued from hick town to small town by aged Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an old crusty lawman who is mercilessly crude with blatantly racial insults aimed mainly at his own forgivingly placid partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a rare and yet wholly unsuccessful attempt to break away from the familiar tradition of the big screen’s Texas Ranger stereotype.

On the road, despite being only weeks away from his retirement, Hamilton is obviously intent upon one final showdown in this modern western. Hell Or High Water is clearly more of character study than a crime drama with limited action scenes. The first problem is that a well grizzled Bridges plays by far the strongest character here, and so his screen presence, of terse comments and a dogged stoicism, tends to overwhelm the rest of the cast’s very best efforts at emoting, even when all put together.


The second problem is that, like all new present-day ersatz westerns, this movie stands or falls in the intimidating shadow of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men (2007). David Mackenzie’s comparatively more leisurely adventure cannot hope to match the darkness or savage intensity of the Coen brothers’ much bigger picture. And, perhaps thankfully, it doesn’t even try. Instead, there are reworked clichés and numerous easily forgettable bluesy soundtrack choices to inform us of momentary freestyle moods in rather too many painfully slow scenes and, presumably, communicate to us something about the outlaw characters’ mental states. Oh, wait a minute... isn’t that what actors are supposed to be for?


Scottish director Mackenzie made the flawed but still fascinating sci-fi romance Perfect Sense (2011), starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. The lack of a strong female character in his attempt at a cowboy cop thriller adds a third failing to its list of faults. The women in this movie are mostly waitresses and bank clerks, and only one of them (TV actress Katy Mixon) makes much of an impression as a sympathetic character. In the end, and its nifty climactic shoot-out notwithstanding, HOHW is perhaps too laidback as a cowpoke flick for its own good, and it seems a bit too ready, if not eager, to swap its porch and pavement seats for rocking chairs. Hats - on or off? Legs - crossed or not? 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Call Of Heroes

Cast: Louis Koo, Ching Wan Lau, and Eddie Peng 

Director: Benny Chan

119 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine Asia blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Nowadays, Hong Kong action movies are rarely better than this superhero adventure. It’s distinguished but never hampered by its period setting. In 1914, the laughing psycho son of tyrant Cao kills a man, a woman, and an innocent child in cold-blooded shootings. The Sheriff of Pucheng arrests the suicidal villain, but any determination of justice from a trial is undermined when the remorseless killer demands his own execution because he knows that his death will provoke his warlord father into a vengeful slaughter of the whole city.

“Brute force beats reason every time.”


In spite of its clever variation of caged fighting, plenty of exemplary wire-work, and some well orchestrated kung fu battles, Benny Chan’s Call Of Heroes is essentially a vividly composed western styled actioner with iconic loners and stoic individuals roused to enact restrained violence against an implacably evil foe. There is nothing particularly original about this picture’s fusion of western and eastern. These cultural tropes and film themes have been borrowed and copied for remakes several times over, such as when The Seven Samurai (1954) became The Magnificent Seven (1960), or when the east and west were mixed together in European production Red Sun (1971), and other more recent cowboy swordsman flicks. 


The martial arts heroes’ defence of a besieged and ultimately occupied valley turns into the grand melee of open warfare, with dynamite explosions in the army camp’s armoury, as returned fire for the massacres by invading enemy troops. Marvellously inventive in its solid characters that avoid stereotypes, plot twists that might be genuinely shocking, and vigorous action sequences that never simply resort to clichés, this is a superb epic movie offering at least a few images we have never seen before. The greatest stuff includes an avalanche of pottery, and views of the business end of a bullwhip that would surely be a nightmare of audience flinching if seen in 3D.