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.

Saturday, 14 January 2017


Cast: Marcus McMahon, Cullum Austin, Rohit Gokani, Mac McDonald, and Victoria Oliver  

Director: Chris Reading

80 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Soda DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

So that’s it then, we’re all doomed! There’s a teasing 1952 pre-credit sequence, filmed at the Severn Valley Railway, replicating a nationalised BR station with steam locomotives and a friendly neighbourhood bobby furtively nipping from a hip-flask. This is what writer and director Chris Reading considers an ‘Indiana Jones’ lead-in, providing this impressively modest indie movie with a narrative spine. The old guy in the train carriage carefully unwraps a journal he’s been bequeathed, flipping through pages of hieroglyphics, Egyptological diagrams, and Von Daniken style theory about ancient alien contact kick-starting human civilisation. And there are predictions for the future…

Shocking forward 300 years, there are slow pans around the ‘Ocelot’, a grubby lived-in spaceship leaving the Phobos One Processing base en route for Earth. Charles Finch (Cullum Austin) is a young likeably ambitious Pilot Second Class. Harry Emerson (Marcus McMahon) is contrastingly bored and tired, on his final flight, and taking time out to immerse in holo-dream sequences of a beach, in a hibernation-matrix sleep-pod. But crew-member Paula dies in a shipboard accident, and there are malfunctions, shut-downs, and communication failure. Unshaven engineer Rupert (Rohit Gokani) gets into dialogue with ‘Meryl’ – a controlling computer-voice given to asking awkward existential questions about the meaning of life and death. So already it’s ‘a ship with a death-wish’. In a tight group-jeopardy hazard, there are atmospheric silences, lurking tensions, suspicions, and conversations whispered so that Meryl will not overhear. That’s until Rupert accesses the core-room, where he’s killed by decompression.

Somnus has been unfairly slated as ‘derivative’, and its meditative pacing – cut with pulsing jellyfish and aquatic tides, has obvious affectionate homage-references to earlier films. But that’s hardly uncommon, as sci-fi eats itself it becomes increasingly a cut-and-mix ripped-collage of stolen ideas and images, yet the influences here are used creatively. McMahon, who shares the commentary with tyro Reading, voice-overs about model-making the miniatures and animatronic creature-effects, with such hand-crafting investing sharp-edges you don’t get with CGI, grafting on what Chris calls ‘a nice organic feel’ to the exteriors. While the ship’s retro-interiors recall – and actually use grimy Cold War era planes, with dials and numbered relays, hardwired with flick-switches and alert-bulbs. It’s pleasingly low-cost in an attractively Dark Star (1974) way.

Meryl informs the surviving duo that “our destiny has been changed by a force we cannot control,” diverting them to Mining Station 16 on the bleak airless Somnus asteroid. Yet when Harry finds himself in a domed-forest, as well as the obvious budgetary location advantages, there are deliberate flashbacks to the hydroponic habitats of Silent Running (1972). The colony has degenerated into anarchy. Mac McDonald – who featured as Captain Hollister in Red Dwarf episodes, as well as Simpson in Aliens (1986), contributes a gloriously over-the-top cameo as the Somnus Guardian, as obsessively mad as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979), but with radiation-burn facials. While snaggle-toothed Emily (Victoria Oliver), with her lethal fanged-frog companion, tells a confused Harry “this is a time of death. We are the privileged few.”

Now things get correspondingly cosmic. An animated sequence splices in the ‘science from the sun-gods’ link back to the prophetic pre-credit journal – ‘the gift we discovered 300 years ago’, which McDonald and his ‘like-minded visionaries’ use as a lifestyle manual. And although we only get to see two of them, this eccentric rabble will repopulate an Earth that “has been purged of all human life by an unknown intelligence from outside the Solar system.” Aliens who detect human aggression, perceive it as a threat, and pre-emptively cleanse the world, returning Earth to its pristine pre-human state. So that’s it then, we’re all doomed!

Is this denouement just a hastily tacked-on contrivance to add narrative rigour? Perhaps, but there’s a kind of exuberant energy about this entire project that makes it work, despite its limitations; a kind of playful spontaneity that larger-scale productions can no longer get away with. So treasure this seat-of-the-pants indie element while you can, before these creatives get headhunted by mainstream studios.

Back in the ship Meryl pleads with Harry – ‘Please stop’, HAL-style, as he drags her fluid-suspended human wired-body from its tank. He sets the doomsday stellar fusion device to terminally detonate Somnus and end these hang-over dregs of humanity, and retreats to his primal beach with his virtual wife, or not. The ending is purposefully and teasingly ambiguous. As a directorial full-length debut by London-based Chris Reading the movie is drenched in affection for his formative influences – as he openly acknowledges in an interview, yet creatively twists its zero-budget resources into an impressive mind-stretch of a trip.