Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, and Stanley Tucci

Director: Michael Bay

149 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 1.90:1
Paramount 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
[released 30 October]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

While superhero epics practice destroying city-scapes, in pursuit of the ultimate disaster, the uncrowned king of devastating mayhem is back in action with the fifth picture in this sci-fi media and toys franchise. It continues the alien robot wars of previous sequels but adds more mythological borrowings, including Arthurian legends, and darkens the earlier pulp shades of space opera with a futuristic catastrophe mode of interplanetary jeopardy best represented by When Worlds Collide (1951).  

Some autobot survivors hideout in hero Cade’s scrap-yard, where aliens blend in with the rusty auto parts and scattered junk. While reactive military forces hunt down the outlaw  robots, Megatron assembles a team of decepticons, with names like Mohawk, Nitro Zeus, and Onslaught, to pursue the heroes while their leader Optimus Prime is off-world, lost in space. The global stage is all set for the familiar shape-shifting of mega-mecha, while the  sparks fly as exchanges of quirkily anarchic sub-cultural dialogue between the thoroughly aggressive machines inevitably leads to frequent explosions in slow-motion.

Failed inventor Cade responds to an attack by fleeing into a ruined city, where he and his Bumblebee car/ sidekick are recruited by a ‘ninja-butler’ robot named Cogman, and flown to England. There, eccentric earl Burton (Anthony Hopkins) welcomes the strange visitors to his history-packed castle, and explains the big plot. A glamorous professor, with daddy issues, British heroine Viviane (Laura Haddock, Da Vinci’s Dreams), becomes a Lara Croft stereotype who’s reportedly descended from Merlin. She inherits the super-weapon of the fabled magician’s staff.

During its quieter moments, this comedy actioner quickly relates the secret history of ETs on Earth which dates back to the Pangaean era, with a turning point for Camelot when an autobot dragon saves the kingdom from Saxon invaders. There is also the vital discovery of a crashed alien mother-ship lurking at the bottom of the sea. A showdown, centred on Stonehenge, begins the grand finale where colourful and routinely violent spectacle soon ranges from the massive to awesome as the Cybertron world brings its fractal hexagonal structures crashing into planet Earth. 

Alongside the Matrix trilogy, the live-action Transformers movies were like genre heralds of today’s DC and Marvel cinema adventures, and launched the on-going development of CGI characters, sometimes with human voices, that gave us Atom (in Real Steel), Ultron, Chappie, and Star Wars droid BB-8, etc. Uniquely, however, these big alien robots’ ability to transform into cars, lorries, planes, and... whatever, makes them so easily marketable all over again, as upgraded versions of the original toys. Obviously, there is truth in some of the cynical complaints that all these Transformers movies are really nothing more than slickly contrived adverts. And yet these big cinematic adverts for cars and toys represent a vast fantastic playground for SF notions of planetary adventure, cosmic scenarios about space invasions, and divergent timelines.

Nowadays, the competition between comics, games, and toys as source material adapted into blockbuster movies exhibits a fierce rivalry of metaphysical scope and transcendental scale, with an increasingly manic intensity for their special effects extravaganzas that are steadily and readily turning from conservative to blatantly cosmic, if not always achieving the truly mythic quality that is often aimed for by adventures such as Power Rangers and TMNT. Although much of this movie is clearly derivative with its assorted allusions to The Abyss, Avatar, and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, et al. Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight is a dazzling quest saga with many quite staggering sequences of action. To belittle the hectic rush of macro-sized imagery as simply ‘maddening’ means overlooking a directorial style that accomplishes the much vaunted ‘sensawunda’ that cool SF aspires to, on the screen, but so rarely achieves outside of every keen sci-fi fan’s dreams.

Make no mistake, all the jokey misdemeanours of previous Transformers movies are here again, as Bay’s approach to irreverent comedy still revels in a politically-incorrect humour of sexism, racism, and scatological gags that many if not most film critics hate. However, Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie packed with wow moments best appreciated as a compilation of magnificent images. It is a stunning production, boasting an imaginative vigour and a daring, sensational thrill ride that rather too few of its genre contemporaries and/ or sci-fi rivals can match.

The 4K UHD edition makes the most of this movie’s dramatic shifts in visual tone, with the HDR presenting its IMAX camera scenes and more life-like colours to great effect.
The Blu-ray extras disc contains over 90 minutes worth of bonus featurettes: 
  • Merging Mythologies - looks behind the scenes of the medieval battle.
  • Creating Destruction: Inside The Packard Plant - a return to the Detroit location that portrays the ruins of Chicago.
  • Climbing The Ranks - is about the military aid for this movie production.
  • Uncovering The Junkyard - explores the hero’s refuge.
  • Royal Treatment: Transformers In The UK - concerns filming in London.
  • Motors & Magic - reveals the new cars and favourite toys that are mainstays of this franchise.  
  • Alien Landscape: Cybertron - creating a world for the living machines to call home.
  • One More Giant ‘Effin’ Movie - the colourful world of Transformers maintains a tongue-in-cheek approach. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Miracle Mile

Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson, John Agar, and Denise Crosby

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

87 minutes (15) 1988
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

Reviewing Hugh Walpole’s second novel, Maradick At Forty, in the Times Literary Supplement of May 1910, Claud Schuster charged the author with having “no clear idea of the difference of the respective functions of comedy and melodrama.” Something of that criticism might well apply to Steve De Jarnatt in writing and directing Miracle Mile, as at times I wasn’t sure if I was watching a wryly satirical black comedy rather than an apocalyptic thriller.

In the early 1980s Miracle Mile spent time as one of those famous unmade screenplays of the kind that Empire magazine now features in order to fill up space in their glossy unreadable magazine (they will print white copy against coloured backgrounds). De Jarnatt wanted to direct the film himself but, with only a writing credit on Strange Brew (1983), and directing credits on Cherry 2000 (1987), he struggled to get backing.  Buying his screenplay out of development hell at Warners, De Jarnett eventually attracted funding from Hemdale and away he went. Getting back to Walpole, he described the novel Maradick At Forty as his attempt at writing genre, and De Jarnatt seems to have invented a whole new genre with Miracle Mile: the romantic apocalypse.  Rom-apoc? Romcalypse?

The film starts with the Big Bang, or rather film and commentary from a documentary running at the George C. Page museum at La Brea Tar Pits where Harry (Anthony Edwards) spots the girl of his dreams Julie (Mare Winningham). Given that the museum teaches science and evolution its days must be numbered under the current administration. Apropos of nothing at all I read a report of one of J.K. Rowling’s recent Twitter spats in which an American fan wrote defending her, observing that the Earth was probably ‘thousands of years old’, you honestly can’t make this stuff up. Anyway, no such confusion at the George C. Page museum, as the fossils retrieved from the tar pits attest; I mention this as it’s a plot-point for later.

After stalking Julie around the museum Harry thinks he has lost sight of her, only for her to turn up, this evidently being a mutual attraction. A montage of romantic assignations follows. Harry’s character is an amalgam of youthful versions of Kevin Costner and Tom Hanks channelling James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story (1954), he even plays trombone in a big band. Harry meets Julie’s grandfather Ivan, played by screen veteran John Agar, who went from starring alongside John Wayne in John Ford westerns like Fort Apache (1948), to roles in SF B-movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Julie lives with her grandmother Lucy who is estranged from Ivan, much to Julie’s distress.

Harry and Julie plan a date-night after which Julie promises him she’ll ‘screw those eyes blue’, at least that’s what I think she said. Harry returns to his hotel to rest up against the evening’s promised exertions, but the cigarette he discards is dropped down a vent by a bird and the resulting fire shorts out the hotel’s electrics. Due to the power cut, Harry’s alarm-clock fails to rouse him, although I’m sure it was a manual, he wakes in the early hours, and turns up outside the diner, where Julie works, too late for the date.  Julie has been conveniently secretive about where she lives and Harry fails to get the information from her work colleague. Hanging around outside, Harry answers the phone ringing in a nearby booth, where a desperate caller, ringing from a missile base in North Dakota, and under the impression he has called his father, announces that the USA has launched a pre-emptive strike and a nuclear response is expected within some 50 minutes. As the horrified Harry listens the call is interrupted by machine-gun fire, and a new voice telling him to forget what he has heard and to go back home to sleep.

An understandably agitated Harry returns to the diner for some breakfast but then starts interrogating the other occupants to see if one of them might be the father of the caller.  Eventually, he reveals the nature of the call he has overheard and the other diners respond either with alarm or outright scepticism. One of the diners, Landa (Denise Crosby, ‘Tasha Yar’ in Star Trek: The Next Generation) questions Harry about what the caller said and then makes a series of phone calls on her brick-sized mobile which confirm that certain prominent individuals are high-tailing it out of the US for the southern hemisphere. Landa claims she knows certain code-words and protocols because she used to date someone who moved in those circles, but she seems very well-informed and to have access to restricted information.

In fact, the whole presentation of Landa is heavy with frankly risible portent. On her arrival in the diner she boots up a computer in her briefcase and checks the stock exchange while studying what looks like the York Notes to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Relating the conversation she has had on her mobile she says she has asked someone if “the unthinkable has happened.” Whatever her back-story Landa provides the impetus for the next stage of the film, frankly ludicrous though it appears to be. She ascertains the next flights out of Los Angeles and corrals Fred the cook and the other customers to accompany her in the diner delivery van to the airport. She tells one of the diners and a waitress to make out a list of great minds and culturally important personages they will need to save in order to rebuild civilisation after the coming holocaust.

It is at this point that the film appears ready to lurch into comedy, especially as the delivery van bears the legend ‘Fat Boy Catering’, ‘Fat Man’ being the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, ‘Little Boy’ being the code for the Hiroshima device.  Is this all a dream? Is Harry still unconscious in his hotel? Evidently not. Fred refuses to wait while Harry picks up Julie, so Harry jumps from the van and using Fred’s .38 hijacks a driver, Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), to take him back to Julie’s apartment. After a contretemps at a gas station in which two police officers are accidentally killed, Harry and Wilson steal their police car and Wilson, believing the local power station to be in meltdown, leaves Harry to rescue his sister while Harry goes to get Julie. The news of the impending missile attack sees Ivan and Lucy reunited but rather than accompanying Harry and Julie they intend to spend their remaining minutes making up for lost time in each other’s company.

Landa has booked a helicopter to fly people to the airport from the pad on the Mutual Benefit Life Building but, while the chopper is there, the pilot has not turned up. Harry and Julie scour the streets asking people if they are registered helicopter pilots, which sounds ridiculous, and indeed is ridiculous, but this is L.A. so there’s probably every chance of getting an answer in the affirmative. Busting into a gym and blasting a dancercise class’s music centre, Harry does in fact find a pilot, played by go-to alien tough-guy actor Brian Thompson. Reunited, Harry and Julie witness the death of Wilson and his sister killed in a pursuit by the police, and Julie confronts Harry about his evidence of the imminent attack, which is now overdue.

As panic spreads in the city Harry begins to wonder if he was wrong and has inadvertently triggered the ensuing chaos. Using a phone booth, and correctly working out the number the mystery caller had intended to ring, Harry gets through to a man who confirms that his son does indeed work for the military on a missile base in North Dakota. Harry and Julie make it to the helipad just as the first missiles home in, the pilot takes off but is caught in the blast and the chopper goes down in the tar pits. As they are about to drown in tar Harry attempts to comfort Julie, telling her Superman could compress a lump of coal to form a diamond and that maybe a direct-hit will see them metamorphosise. Julie hopes that in the future they will be discovered preserved like the exhibits in the museum.

There is much about this film which is outrageously bad, the tone is uncertain and at times farcical and yet, largely playing in real time, it manages to be quite gripping. It’s interesting that a film playing on what the late great Salford comedian Al Read used to describe in his radio monologues as, living ‘under the shadow of the bomb’, should be released in the year the Berlin Wall came down, when for a little while at least we all felt a bit safer. In fact, nuclear aggression is less of a theme in the film than the burden of secret knowledge, and the desire to rescue your loved ones before random shit hits the fan. Imagine Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with less paranoia and a more selfish protagonist. The characters are ciphers, Harry, as said, is a Jimmy Stewart everyman and Julie is barely sketched-in, but they play their parts with such sincerity that it lends authenticity to an otherwise unlikely sequence of events. De Jarnatt seeds the screenplay with some quite subtle references, particularly the introduction of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as Landa’s reading material. The epigraph to part one of that novel is a quote from Wernher ‘I bombed London and got away with it’ von Braun: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”


There are a host of DVD extras on this disc as befitting the cult movie we are told this has become. In Last Orders At Johnie’s, De Jarnatt discusses his career and making Miracle Mile. ‘Interview with Harry and Julie’, stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, looking rather like middle-aged parents interviewed on Fox News in the aftermath of a tragedy, discuss their memories of making the film. Reunion At Johnie’s Diner, sees the cast reunited. Paul Haslinger, guitarist and keyboard-player with Tangerine Dream from 1985 to 1990, discusses the soundtrack in ‘Music of Tangerine Dream’. ‘Excavation from the editing room’ is a compilation of out-takes from the dailies.  The alternate ending sees a pair of animated diamonds appear on-screen after the black-out and before the credits. There is also a ‘storyboard to film comparison’, a trailer, and commentaries from the director and crew. A bit of a left-field, or indeed self-serving inclusion, is someone, perhaps De Jarnatt himself, reading the director’s short story Rubiaux Rising from the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories edited by Alice Sebold and published by Houghton-Mifflin.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Untamed

Cast: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, and Jesus Meza

Director: Amat Escalante  

100 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Arrow Academy DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington  

Mexican horror films have a long history of weirdness, with their own distinctive brand of strangeness. Think Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993). While it’s worth bearing in mind that Luis Bunuel produced a slew of formative films, including his The Exterminating Angel (1962), during his Mexican sojourn. Elements of both creepy strands are here in these wide empty landscapes, open skies, and drifts of forest rain made eerie by atmospheric music. Premiered at the 2016 Venice film festival where Amat Escalante won Silver Lion for best director, it follows the auteur’s equally challenging drug-war crime-drama Heli (2013).

It begins with a naked girl having what looks like tentacle-sex. She has a non-human demon lover imprisoned in a secret room in a cabin in the woods. The nameless Cthulhu look-alike fell to Earth in a meteor-strike into what the film’s original title calls ‘The Wild Region’. She either found the house by accident, or was drawn inexorably into it. There’s a remarkable orgy of copulating creatures in the meteor crater as testament to its erotic powers of attraction. Caretaker scientist Senor and Marta Vega explain that “what’s there in the cabin is our primitive side, in its most basic and purest state.” Well, maybe a touch impure too!

The girl is the blankly beautiful ‘Vero’ – Veronica (Simone Bucio). Did her alien encounter hurt? No, “it can only give pleasure.” Yet she’s next seen wounded and bleeding, limping through the forest mist. Alien-sex can obviously be a little rough at times, as well as ecstatically addictively. She visits the Guanajuanto hospital for puncture-wounds she claims are dog bites, and flirts with gay doctor Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). It transpires they’re both trapped in destructive relationships. Perhaps unwisely, he trusts her.

Acting as a kind of pimp for the octopoid penis-tentacled monstrosity, Vero becomes catalyst in the lives of a tight trio of working-class losers. The gentle Doctor Fabian is having a raw affair with his macho outwardly-homophobic brother-in-law Jose ‘Angel’ Rocha (Jesus Meza). While the swarthy Angel is married to Fabian’s sister ‘Ale’ – Alejandre (Ruth Ramos), the mum of their two bratty sons. Joylessly, Angel takes her from behind, while she prefers to masturbate in the shower.

Yes, it’s all pretty explicit, while also running in the groove of two parallel narratives. The gritty everyday mundane bits of life where she works in a candy factory and son Ivan has a chocolate allergy, while veggie Angel fights his guilty desire for ‘super-faggot’ Fabian, and the boys watch zombie-horror on TV. There’s graffiti in the alleyway and brawls in the bar.

It all goes into meltdown when Vero induces Fabian to visit the cabin in the woods, telling him “it’ll like you.” The paramedic responders subsequently retrieve his comatose naked body from the wetland, victim of head trauma and sexual assault. Angel is wrongly arrested and jailed for the attack. Inquisitive Ale reads Angel’s cell-phone messages and learns of their affair. Soon, she’s drugged with tea and entangled at the cabin in the woods too, penetrated in oral and vaginal coils of octopus sex in a kind of calamari gang-bang. So will she return for more? Yes, she nods. Even random sex with a pick-up stranger can’t compete or cure her of so powerful a need.

If it’s meant to be gratuitous art-porn, there are long slow sequences of decorative longueur to deter prurient thrill-seekers. It works better as an escapist metaphor for the immaculate orgasmic kick. And the narcotic dangers of achieving that higher plane of sensual experience, where the next hit is so good it’s terminal. Sometimes, what you wish for can kill you. Your darkest desires, your ‘primitive side in its most basic and purest state’ are maybe best left buried deep in your psyche.

Angel is released by the police, but ostracised by his family. In an attempted reconciliation with Ale he manages to shoot himself in the leg. She loads him into the truck, but predictably doesn’t take him to hospital, but drags him through the forest, lays him out on the white mattress in the darkened room of the cabin for the waiting alien cephalopod. ‘The bodies’ it seems, ‘are piling up.’ Mexican horror films can be weird, with their own distinctive brand of strangeness.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Getting Any?

Cast: Dankan, Takeshi Kitano, Tokie Hidari, Shoji Kobayashi, and Shinsuke Yamane

Director: Takeshi Kitano

108 minutes (15) 1994
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1  
Third Window blu-ray region B
[released 16 October]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Mike Philbin

Yakuza hitmen, fantastical sexual content, and just a peck of pickled pepper... As the ever-twitching Kitano himself confesses, in the very severe interrogation-come-interview as part of the extras on the original DVD release of Getting Any? - “I fucking hate this cheap and nasty film, it’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever done. I will probably never make another film in Japan.” Kitano would have loved that, irreverence from his reviewer - irony.

Truth be told, Kitano is a real fan of this (early) movie. How many of you know that despite his starring in numerous yakuza films as a gangster without compassion, a stone-cold killer, Kitano is one of Japan’s most respected and shamelessly irreverent comedians? Banned in the 1970s from all the major television networks for appearing in the nude, there is no surprise that finally a film such as Getting Any? would be made by this mad genius.

While Getting Any? is about sex, it’s not a sex film. It’s not porn, at least. There is some sexual content but, mostly, the sex is played for laughs. Asao (Dankan) needs to get laid but to do this, in the Japan of Kitano’s youth (as he explains in great detail in his interview), you had to have a car. Thus begins car farce after car farce where Asao is continuously ripped off by the car dealer on his quest to find the perfect passion-wagon. Asao decides to rob a bank to get more money, this time to buy a first class flight ticket because in first class the air hostesses get ’em out and get it on! Or so Asao convinces himself.

Then he gets into acting - actors always get head, right? Then he is made invisible by a mad professor (played by Kitano himself) and lots of patented Japanese bath-house and ‘love hotel’ tomfoolery ensues. Then he becomes a yakuza hitman. He ends up romancing a giant turd - very odd.

Getting Any? is a mad, daft road movie of a film - it is evident Kitano is a fan of western cinema and probably the early slapstick cinema like Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton. Unfortunately, the Japanese film industry and Japanese society in-jokes diminish the appeal of the film to a western audience. Those willing to invest some time in discovering what the hell chambara cinema is, or who the hell Zatoichi the blind swordsman is, and those who have already enjoyed Kitano in his yakuza roles will appreciate the irony, the self-deprecation and clowning around that is stuffed into this film.

He’s one of their own, but even the Japanese don’t understand their resident joker; it seems - for example, when the film was released in Japan, nobody said anything. There was just no critical response from the media about his film - maybe they hoped it would sink without trace, so close does it get to the underlying stink of the modern Japanese mentality.

The guy who plays Asao does an exemplary job of keeping his face straight throughout the entire film. No mean feat in itself considering the subject matter. One classic scene involving the ‘test driving’ of a car in a showroom (well, more a test-driving of the secretary in the role of virtual car date) really sticks in the mind as wonderfully subversive and absurdist.

So, what’s wrong with Kitano? Don’t you get it? He’s a comedian. Geddit? It’s a comedian’s job to make you laugh, not to make you understand. Well, as a fan of the comatose humour of American social commentator Steven Wright, I like my humour a little less ribald than this. But I bet the French would love it - they go for slapstick in their humour too, especially from their stage comedians.

As a westerner, you can love some of Kitano’s other films but this one will be just too anal, too out there for most westerners to digest. They’ll end up going, ‘Like what the fuck was that?’ and this director deserves more than that. I really like this film’s irreverence and strangeness - it takes one into Twin Peaks territory but as part of a cart wheeling knickers show of back-of-the-class mischief.