Friday, 13 July 2018

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, and Walton Goggins

Director: Roar Uthaug

118 minutes (12) 2018
Warner 4K Ultra HD
[Released 16th July]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

This production is both a prequel and a remake combined. Tomb Raider is very much a comic-book styled origin story, a gritty adventure that’s something not unlike franchise re-launcher Batman Begins (2005), mashed together with TV adventure show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-3). It starts, of course, with a treasure hunt using clues that only the young Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) can solve. An inherited key opens her missing dad Richard’s hidden den for secret research projects to prove the supernatural is real.

This discovery prompts reluctant heiress Lara to leave London and embark on a mission overseas, and very soon she’s chasing after muggers. Ship’s captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, Geostorm) saves her from a knife fight. These unlikely allies own a map and a journal for guidance but our heroes are on a trail that’s been stone-cold for seven years. The subject of this movie and the object of their search is Himiko, a legendary ‘Queen of Death,’ who was supposedly buried on an island that time forgot, but is actually still just waiting to be unearthed - and probably weaponised - by some corporate villains led by Vogel (Walton Goggins, TV show Justified).


In the stormy Devil’s Sea, the mismatched heroes’ old boat runs aground, but they do survive a shipwreck and reach the remote island’s mountainside. Lara manages to escape from a slave camp, and runs away from gun-men, but falls into further danger on a crashed WW2 plane that’s hanging over a waterfall, an unusual and precarious location for a parachute drop. Lara learns to balance reckless behaviour with courage, turning a grim determination into a moral purpose for her youthful passion. As a practiced archer, she takes up a bow and arrows against heavily armed mercenaries, and later encounters with a series of booby-traps in Himiko’s tomb results in a typical life-and-death struggle against ancient mechanisms, set-up to guard a mythical truth against modern intruders.


Lara is on a steep learning curve here and there’s significant growth for her character, in keeping with her father’s affectionate nickname ‘Sprout’, but the busy events of Tomb Raider form a sundry ordeals of endurance, a nightmarish testing of her mettle that’s forced upon Lara as a result of her somewhat rash decisions. There also seems to be an inevitability to her choices here because she is drawn to solving puzzles (her genius is presented simply as a gift, not earned by any close or intense study), and her father’s disappearance and his suspected death remains the biggest unresolved crisis in her life.


Swedish ballet dancer turned actress Alicia Vikander has enjoyed a quite meteoric rise to Hollywood prominence, with an eclectic CV of movies that includes a couple of genre hits. She played robot-girl Ava in Alex Garland’s controversial SF drama Ex Machina (2015), and the underestimated heroine of Guy Ritchie’s enjoyable spy-fi movie remake The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (also 2015). In Tomb Raider, the actress boasts a keen athleticism that helps to sell the movie’s set-piece stunt-work, and Vikander is clearly a worthy contender for any action-movie heroine of the year award.


Dominic West (Money Monster) is good value as Richard Croft, while the great Kristin Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour), and veteran Derek Jacobi, deliver extended cameos for their minor supporting roles. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug previously made horror slasher Cold Prey (2006), and disaster movie The Wave (2015), demonstrating his favourable ability to promote a strong female lead, and then cope with a larger-scaled production and its notable family-centric theme.

This Ultra HD format disc offers a fine showcase for skin tones and shadows, while rocky textures and dusty explosions all look stunning in HDR on this edition in a premier home-entertainment format. The crisp sound quality is utterly superb, whether capturing the noisy echoes of gunshots in the cavernous tunnels or a half-whispered aside in the Croft boardroom meetings.

As usual for a UHD release, there are some extras on the accompanying Blu-ray disc:
Tomb Raider: Uncovered (seven minutes) looks at how the movie's high production standards, filmed in South Africa, turned Cape Town into Hong Kong. Croft Training (six minutes) charts Vikander’s comprehensive fitness regimen. Breaking Down The Rapids (five minutes) examines the details of a major stunt sequence. Best of all, Lara Croft: Evolution Of An Icon (10 minutes) is a featurette on the franchise development of Tomb Raider, from its 1996 original video game that inspired two great movies - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life (2003), both starring Angelina Jolie - and was an obvious, but often critically neglected, influence upon J.J. Abrams’ spy-fi TV series Alias (2002-6), that launched Jennifer Garner to stardom.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Genesis

Cast: Olivia Grant, Chike Okonkwo, and John Hannah

Directors: Freddie Hutton-Mills and Bart Ruspoli

109 minutes (15) 2018
Lion Gate DVD Region 2
[Released 16th July]

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Whether biblical or not, movies and stories titled ‘Genesis, are usually about a beginning, of some sort. However, this one’s about the end of the world, or the fall of civilisation, at least. “Distress is, after all, the essence of evolution,” asserts newly minted android ABEL (Chike Okonkwo). Are humans doomed to mere survival of apocalypse, or is there really one more chance left (any hope left at the bottom of Pandora's box?), for social progress beyond the current dystopian gloom?


Scottish veteran John Hannah (The Mummy, TV's Spartacus, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) prowls around in refugee-camp conditions to calm increasing dissent, against callous presidential authority, over an oppressive regime that heralds abject slavery, into peaceful protests about rationing. Olivia Grant leads the main cast as Dr Eve Gabriel (oh dear, is that two biblical references too many?). Political officers in the community bunker of ‘Eden’ test ‘Abel’ for moral choices emerging from its ‘mark 3’ AI. Has the machine got a mind in its technological brain? Can it develop a conscience? Perhaps that depends less upon its core programming, or exposure to learning from human flaws, and has rather more to do with what’s expected of it. “I cannot understand this human obsession with death,” complains the routinely stoic android. Later, an SOS signal is detected, which suggests there are more survivors underground elsewhere, and a mission for Abel is planned in response.


Genesis offers just low-rent post-apocalypse imagery, with car wrecks, and a ruined city painted on the horizon, as the main signs of a supposedly widespread catastrophe. Abel is pursued by soldiers in hazmat suits “One more drop into this pool of resentment and the whole dam could bust.” “Pithy comments and quaint metaphors,” aside, what starts as a serious drama quickly becomes just another action thriller of shoot-outs where very few characters actually know what’s going on, and even viewers who find the frequently pounding score emotionally stirring probably won’t care much. The enraged mob stuffing a victim in a furnace seems like overkill. It’s a sadly pointless moment of shock value to enliven the otherwise stodgy narrative. 


Truth is we have seen all of this before. The bunker mentality that prompts a breakdown in law and order, android saviours turning against unwary creators, or twisty revelations about who is also artificial, and why the intelligent machines were originally made... It’s simply a grab-bag of genre notions assembled to make good use of an easily available, and inevitably low, British production budget. Genesis is reportedly intended as the first of a trilogy, and hints about unmade movies are duly noted when Eve discovers info about an abandoned project named ‘Babel’ (and someone else peruses documents about ‘Jericho’), yet both references only add further confusions, not proper genre sophistication, or extra layers of thematic complexity, to an already muddled and unfortunately messily unfinished plot. So, perhaps this decidedly ‘average’ effort is just suitable for devotees, and home-grown sci-fi completists?



Monday, 2 July 2018

The Humanity Bureau

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Lind, and Jakob Davies

Director: Rob W. King

95 minutes (15) 2017
101 Films Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Peter Schilling  

Dystopia... What is it good for? In the movies, it’s usually effective as a satirical narrative framework or a vehicle for contemporary political commentary. In our own late-capitalist milieu of Trump’s America and impending cultural collapse, due to government corruption and mismanagement of natural resources and environmental abuse, dystopian narratives are so commonplace as end-of-the-world conflicts that even casual cinema viewers might suspect all hope for our species, trapped in the fragile balance of economic belief systems and wholly practical concerns is lost. Extinction events loom extra-large, on every shining dream screen, from the superheroic battles of Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), to various ongoing sci-fi TV dramas like The 100 and The Handmaid’s Tale.    


While other scenarios challenge our civilisation with sudden catastrophe, the remnants of humanity that collapse into tribalism, or a theological patriarchy, The Humanity Bureau explores how austerity breeds fascistic exclusivity with executions hidden behind a wall of secrecy, and stars Nicolas Cage as government agent Noah Kross. His character arc leads him from being a dutiful employee, due for a promotion, to rogue action hero, attempting to contact and join exiled rebels against homicidal forces of the grimly totalitarian regime that rules all that’s left of a near-future America. Noah travels on a mission to rehab, and relocate, isolated individuals or families to a rumoured utopian community, but this post-apocalypse world’s ‘New Eden’ is anything but welcoming. When he meets single-mother, Rachel (Sarah Lind, WolfCop), and her son (Jakob Davies, The Tall Man), this improbable conspiracy unravels and Noah’s unexpected questioning of Humanity Bureau propaganda results in a series of life-changing decisions with ultimately tragic consequences.     


Chief bad guy Adam (Hugh Dillon) helps to make this stylishly photographed road movie, filmed on Canadian locations, a kind of Logan’s Run for the current zeitgeist for economic and environmental disaster movies. Although The Humanity Bureau does not have one of Nic Cage’s best performances because he fails to attain the manic intensity that’s become his trademark ever since Vampire’s Kiss (1988), and Wild At Heart (1990). Cage’s unique brand of crazy behaviour, as seen more recently in Drive Angry (2011), and his couple of Ghost Rider superhero movies, might well be his defining characteristic as a major star in Hollywood, but he is capable of subtler and nuanced roles, and this SF movie features the actor’s ability to portray the greater depths of an ordinary man seeking redemption - and yes, rediscovering his own humanity, with immense sincerity.




Friday, 29 June 2018

Xtro

Cast: Philip Sayer, Bernice Stegers, and Danny Brainin

Director: Harry Bromley-Davenport 

87 minutes (15) 1982
Second Sight 
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

British cult sci-fi shocker Xtro is one of the weirdest genre flicks made in its decade. Young Tony (Simon Nash) survives a UFO encounter but his dad Sam (Philip Sayer) is abducted. Three years later, there’s a victim of inter-species rape, like the poor heroine of Inseminoid (aka: Horror Planet, 1981), which results in a rebirth for amnesiac Sam, returning home and doing abnormal stuff, like melting phones and eating snake-eggs, and then eventually decaying in the manner of those doomed astronauts in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), and The Incredible Melting Man (1977). This extra-wide raft of genre references distinguishes Xtro from other movies of its type and era - Italian grue-fest Contamination (1980), to name just one - and Xtro’s cult-worthy status is wholly assured because it becomes rather more than just the sum of its varied visual riffs and astute thematic borrowings.


The development of a hybrid life-cycle here is much more like Alien (1979), meets an X-rated updating of b&w classics, such as It Came From Outer Space (1953), and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958), than anything that resembles the tame fairy-tale quality of Spielberg’s ET. Quiet domestic routine clashes wildly with exploitation scenes that soon turn incredibly, yet memorably, strange. The telekinetic Tony starts a spinning-top without touching it and so begins this decidedly odd movie’s surrealist farce, with over-sized toys coming to life for menacing and homicidal effects. 


Despite its copious use of black-comedy relief, there’s a somewhat naturalistic and serious drama, and extreme SF-horror (almost but not quite on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing), here that is struggling to escape from the schlocky conventions of typically bloody alien-sleaze pictures, and the movie’s jumble of conceptual effects, and off-kilter ideas (including a life-sized ‘Action Man’, and a gnomish clown), grants its numerous artistic ambitions an unforgettable melting-pot of humorous scenes implanted in a strong and spooky, albeit disconnected, narrative.


Xtro is also notable for introducing future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, here playing French nanny Analise (“You’re always lying down,” quips Tony). Harry Bromley-Davenport went on to make sequels Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1990), and Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995), both of which were watchable enough, although they lack the bizarre grotesquery of this first outing. Still, I do hope that Second Sight will release HD editions of those movies, too.


Fully restored for this limited edition, the movie's use of colour and sound is exemplary, and the disc release also features a new director’s version, alongside the original, plus a wealth of extra featurettes, including Xploring Xtro (57 minutes), an excellent retrospective and highly detailed documentary short.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Lodgers

Cast: Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner, and David Bradley

Director: Brian O’Malley  

90 minutes (15) 2017
Thunderbird DVD Region 2
[Released 25th June]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Brother and sister, Edward and Rachel are cursed twins stuck together in an old haunted house in rural 1920s Ireland. Troubled by debts, the rundown estate appears in jeopardy from sinister forces clearly that are far greater than house-keeping money problems, and there is something of an unholy evil lurking beneath a trapdoor in the hall. 

The Lodgers is a ghost story based on wholly traditional themes, such as Poe’s absurdly morbid Fall Of The House Of Usher, but it’s also a movie that’s infused creatively with decidedly modern imagery, including nudity with some hints of incest, mixed together with excellent visual effects. These occasionally graphic sequences complement the production’s lavish or creepy cinematography, which owes quite a lot to genre iconography of The Grudge franchise.


Much like The Others (2001), this eerie but compelling romantic mystery unfolds slowly to reveal its dark secrets that include a remorseless family curse of suicidal drowning. A concerned but intrusive, and somewhat predatory, Mr Bermingham (a great cameo from David Bradley, of TV vampire series The Strain), is obviously doomed. 


Elsewhere, after he is branded as a traitor by local villagers, crippled war veteran Sean (Eugene Simon), pursues Rachel, but soon becomes involved much deeper in her situation than he wanted or expected to. Packed with telling details, characteristic nuances, and mortal perils, The Lodgers doles out a sumptuous compendium of murmuring anxiety and bloodless frights.  


Of course, this all ends with coldly irrational passions and watery supernatural violence. Irish location shooting in Wexford (where the haunted Loftus Hall mansion is claimed to be 666 years old!), benefits from set-pieces of dramatic irony, and ensures this movie is very welcome and worthwhile viewing for any fans of strange and shadowy cinema. The Lodgers presents the right kind of stylish blending of ethereal beauty and gritty realism, and the winning combination grants this chilling fable of immortality, between the wars, all the striking atmosphere and grimly fatal charm of the very best modern fairy-tales.




Saturday, 2 June 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, and Kaya Scodelario

Director: Wes Ball

137 minutes (12) 2018
20th Century Fox
DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A free-range Cube? Lord Of The Flies meets the Predator franchise? Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner (2014), posits a novelty secret mission for new-kid-on-the-block, the amnesiac Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, TV series Teen Wolf), who’s freight-lifted up into a walled glade where an odd assortment of boys survive in this exclusive prison as modern Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe recruits for a bizarre Spartan programme, while living in social fear of giant cyber-spiders that lurk just beyond their secure garden’s perimeter. Even with its rather simplistic narrative rules, this brisk adaptation of James Dashner’s YA novel still takes young hero Thomas half an hour to get his Theseus on, and slay the metaphorical minotaur in this pseudo-labyrinth. Of course, everything changes for the boys’ hormonal captivity when the first-and-last girl arrives.

Maze Runner
Lurching out of religious-allegory mode, from its edenic-purgatory version of a creation myth (“People needed to believe we had a chance of getting out.”), The Maze Runner copycats big-story beats from other juveniles like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Ender’s Game, with its adolescence-is-a-battlefield motifs. But with only two good ideas to rub together, the maker’s apparent mistake is taking a patently ridiculous and clich├ęd sci-fi adventure seriously. In more experienced hands, with a finely inventive adaptation, and/ or better direction, the somewhat uninspired comic-bookish antics of this dystopian rebellion might have been considerably more fun. Happily, sequel movie Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2016), expanded on the sci-fi milieu’s possibilities to reach far beyond the confinements of predictable genre nonsense.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
After Patricia Clarkson’s mastermind delivers her video testimony packed with mega-plot exposition, the sequel picks up right from where Maze Runner left off, and Scorch Trials intensifies the melodrama, of various teenage rebel heroes versus corporate villainy, with some increasingly sinister experiments. Thomas rescues Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) from a WCKD hi-tech med-lab where Janson (Aiden Gillen) runs a top security orphanage for the ‘lost boys’. The lads promptly escape from a lock-up style detention centre into the post-apocalypse desert that’s plagued by midnight lightning storms, some captured zombies, and even free but nightmarish un-dead like writhing mutant creatures from hell.

“Do you ever get the feeling the whole world’s against you?” sums up typical adolescent mentalities that are a guiding principle of this wholly perilous gamer scenario. New temp heroine Brenda (Rosa Salazar) is repeatedly endangered just so that the faithful Thomas leaps into action, but he fails to save her from the probably infectious bites, or a drunken house party. Shouting, gasping, frantic chases, and casually repetitive yet monstrously tense confrontations continue, until a betrayal and the shoot ‘em-up fighting in a desert camp settles a few scores.


There was a year’s delay in production, after the star was injured on a movie set in 2016, before this adventure trilogy concludes with Maze Runner: The Death Cure, where the heroic Thomas follows-up his proverbial ‘good speech’ from the climactic action of Scorch Trials by leading a Mad Max styled raid on a WCKD corporation train to free one carriage-load of prisoners. Later, breaking into the enemy’s sprawling walled-city of an ultimate enclave proves to be a rather more troublesome feat of daring for the young heroes.


From the first movie’s glade, Gally (Will Poulter, Son Of Rambow) returns and he grants Thomas an opportunity to unite the various gangs of survivalists to sneak through tunnels into the wicked WCKD city and rescue their captured friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee). However, the boys start off wrongly by kidnapping their apparent opponent Teresa. The Death Cure offers fairly standard action movie thrills and chills about the resistance to a totalitarian regime that turns into a “you guys are nuts” rebellion, a movement that’s partly dictated by the anarchist revolutionary fervour of grotesquely scar-faced Lawrence (Walton Goggins, TV series Justified) who helps greatly to drive the main plot forward. In the end, this movie trilogy really concerns the little people that twin capitalist menaces of big money and corporate greed always exploits and then forgets about.


Hijacked as a getaway vehicle, a bus is hoisted skyward by a giant construction crane to provide unsubtle spectacle and a fresh perspective, amidst vigorous urban pursuits and street-level shoot-outs. It’s surprisingly effective as a standout combination of stunts and special effects. The director Wes Ball went from making short films to blockbuster movie production in one ambitious leap. His competence at orchestrating grand effects scenes is never in doubt, but he tends to lack something vital when it comes to getting strong and compelling performances from a predominantly young cast in leading roles. Death Cure is too frequently melodramatic for any sense of realism or actorly conviction, as every twist and tragedy gets hammered home with tearful mistakes and regrets. Often, these heroes kill to learn the truth and then want to kill again because of new knowledge, too. Juvenile love, nowadays, seems unfortunately to be about the end of the world.


In retrospect, The Maze Runner trilogy is particularly worthwhile because Ball insists upon taking all of its gross absurdities seriously. There’s no escape mechanism of humour, with jokey asides and comic relief, to break from a constant mood of sinister sci-fi and rousing action sequences. In many ways, the casual genre references of The Death Cure, ranging from Aliens to Titanic (hmm, I wonder if Ball is big fan of James Cameron’s movies?) help to make certain its explosive finale is both spectacular and suspenseful.


Monday, 28 May 2018

Downsizing

Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chau

Director: Alexander Payne

135 minutes (15) 2017
Paramount Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Ahead of a returning ‘tiny dude’ in Ant-Man And The Wasp, here’s Matt Damon in a sci-fi comedy-drama where a man who shrinks to five inches tall is not a superhero but makes critical sense in the crunch-time of an economic crisis. Emerging from odd experiments in a Norwegian laboratory for human-scaled sustainability research, the invention of cellular reduction becomes a wholly practical answer to the world’s over-population burden. And yet, despite its obvious genre conceits, Downsizing is much closer to Joel Schumacher’s cult farce The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), than such great classic sci-fi melodramas as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), even with a depiction of industrialisation for the shrinking process as a rather clever or often jokey exploitation of scientific developments affecting social progress and political rights.


So, former O.T. specialist and nice-guy Paul (Matt Damon) joins the happy little people in the ultimate sheltered housing estates where the ‘equivalent values’ of individual buying power, after cashing in and selling up, makes any ordinary person newly able to afford a dreamy millionaire lifestyle in the doll-houses of a sprawling toy-town city named ‘Leisure-land’. Creating an entirely dependent off-shoot society and utopian dream, realised in palatial splendour, is magnificently achieved, but is there big trouble in this compacted paradise?


Starting out with its clinical and medical processes, that are detailed enough to worry the rationally sane, never mind the faint-hearted, the down-sizing transition is not without its opponents or abusers. With the likes of Kristen Wigg and Udo Kier headlining the eclectic, and very skilfully composed, supporting cast, the pocket-sized folks here bring all of their normal-sized selfish faults and foibles with them into the what-a-wonderful worldlet.


Class-based habits of excess result in social constraints, and culture clashes, that perturb and humorously disturb newly miniaturised Paul, who finds himself divorced and roundly criticised by noisily entrepreneurial Serbian neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) for being rather too staid and American but still casually befriended in honourable support for local diversity. 


Into this domestic scene comes Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a cleaner with a prosthetic leg and riotously bossy nature. She helps Paul open his mind to all the humanitarian possibilities of slums and socialism, and much amusement might be derived from her no-nonsense impatience as a survivor of grim adversity especially when poor hen-pecked Paul doesn’t really stand a chance against her.


Even before a boat journey to Norway, the movie offers stunning use of scale, and forced perspectives, when actual-size items from the outer world are re-purposed to recall sci-fi TV show Land Of The Giants (1968). The practicality of slum housing (that appears to be a modified plywood crate) built by hand from scraps is a busy place where a large screen TV set becomes a billboard form of news and cinema - and focus of a thriving community for social exiles and victims of routinely cruel foreign powers.


Downsizing explores genre themes, and characters facing changes to lives, resulting from confusing cultural confrontations, but its satire, sitcom, and rom-com connections include many cross-cultural and romantic similarities to A Hologram For The King (2016) wherein Tom Hanks falls for an Arabian lady. This fine nuevo-Swiftian fable finds various workable solutions to seemingly intractable, global problems, even if the outcome means accepting some exclusivity for the sake of diversity.


Is there really one ultimate fate? Is intelligence a survival trait, or is humanity doomed to extinction because of stupidity and greed? It’s true that Downsizing really deserves some sharp criticism for its obvious neglect of great SF opportunities in favour of broadly social comedy but this movie’s engagingly witty mix of disparate elements and episodic charms seems very likely to attract a cult following.