Saturday, 22 July 2017

Elite Force: Operation Mekong

Cast: Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Baoguo Chen, Xudong Wu, Ganesh Acharya, and Carl Ng

Director: Dante Lam

124 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine Asia DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Rob Marshall

Based upon a true story about a massacre of Chinese fishermen by river pirates, action blockbuster adventure Elite Force: Operation Mekong (aka: Operation Mekong), from director Dante Lam, combines dizzyingly-fast chases, hectic bouts of martial arts, some mind-boggling stunts, and well orchestrated explosive shoot-outs galore. Focusing on the ‘Golden Triangle’ drug trade along the Mekong river, depicted here as a gateway from hell with the bitter irony that such beautifully verdant landscapes are a major source of global miseries, like addiction and violent crime, and Naw Khar is a kingpin who’s Tony Montana-style crazy enough to join in a gun-battle with his gold-plated Kalashnikov.


This is a slickly polished production with high shooting ratio and its brisk pacing, for an international and multi-lingual action thriller, that’s colourful and vivid with high impact visuals, compares favourably with Hollywood’s best. The movie’s police heroes include undercover agents who must appeal to gangsters’ vanity and glossy over-ambition to insinuate themselves and their spying efforts into an criminal world ruled by egotistical paranoia. The feature excels when it comes to a smooth integration of hi-tech gadgets into a traditional narrative of dogged cops and sinister crooks in the business-as-usual facade of creating and maintaining a monopoly.



Somewhat amusingly, even in the busiest moments of all this blistering mayhem, there's a directorial / auteurial concern expressed for the relative safety of babies (endangered in a shopping centre) and dogs (pathfinder across a minefield) put in jeopardy, but its characters are generally closer to eastern stoicism than the more familiar blubbering sentimentality that bedevils many Asian pictures. And yet, for every small victory over chaos and inhumanity, there’s a heavy price to be paid in blood, such as lethal terrorist bombings as reprisals for arrests. The final raid on a jungle camp delivers on a promise of fantastic action with selfless sacrifice and practical heroics in a high-stakes display of helicopters, pyrotechnics and gun-play.


Monday, 17 July 2017

Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, and Richard E. Grant

Director: James Mangold

137 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

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

What we are told is to be Hugh Jackman’s final appearance as Wolverine is easily the best of the stand-alone films featuring the grizzled, conflicted, mutant, and one only wishes that the earlier outings had been stronger, in order to provide a more satisfying narrative arc to the trilogy. The desire to tinker with simple ideas, resulting in over-complication, bedevils every other superhero film you see, in the same way that it currently plagues the source material. Logan is a simple story, simply told, with strong central performances and that’s the difference.

I hail from a more innocent era where comic-book storylines evolved from who-will-save-the-girl/city/world/cosmos, and it was enough to establish the threat and then depict the hero coming back from an initial defeat to ultimately triumph. Those storylines passed muster for a few decades so it was inevitable that something had to be done to refresh the mix, but reading about parallel earths, life model decoys, Skrull impostors, death and resurrection, implanted false memories, and the remorseless juggernaut-like onslaught of retrofitting and rebooting that goes on in the Marvel Universe, hardly inspires one to pick up a new comic-book. There doesn’t appear to have been any need to infect the movie versions of comic-book superherodom with this rash of over-complication but it’s happened anyway.


It’s hard to say why some superhero films work and others don’t, and any assessment has to be purely subjective. The films produced under the auspices of the MCU have a coherent vision but that hasn’t meant they are an unqualified success, and the films produced by other studios are a bit of a mixed bag. The first two X-Men movies, and X-Men: First Class, the first Iron Man, Captain America, the original Spider-Man, and Thor all worked for me, sequels, and other entrants, less so. Simple stories and strong characters work, overlong battles with CGI villains don’t.

The first two Wolverine movies weren’t all bad but they seemed hampered by a desire to cram too much stuff in. The only bit I truly enjoyed in the first film was the final battle with Deadpool, perhaps because of its comic-book silliness, The Wolverine would have been better if it had adhered more closely to the simple outline of its source material.  The Old Man Logan comic is the inspiration for Logan but happily the film strips away the excessive trappings of that particular corner of the Marvel universe, and presents a simple road movie with a pursuing threat.

In a future where mutants have largely been eradicated and no more are being born, James ‘Logan’ Howlett (Hugh Jackman), tends an increasingly infirm Charles Xavier, Professor ‘X’ (Patrick Stewart), with the help of Caliban, the former mutant ‘Hound’ (Stephen Merchant). Xavier is prone to devastating psychic seizures, and there is a suggestion that just such a seizure has resulted in the deaths of mutants at the Professor’s former Westchester Academy. Logan’s health is failing too, his mutant healing factor no longer functions efficiently and the adamantium lacing his bones is poisoning him. Logan works as a limousine driver in El Paso to buy the drugs that control Xavier’s condition and to raise the money that will buy them a boat to get away from the mainland. In a nice touch, Xavier is housed in a downed water tower which, with its riddled interior letting in specks of light, resembles Cerebro, the Professor’s mutant-detecting machine. Xavier insists, against Logan’s arguments, that he can sense a new mutant presence.



Logan is approached by a former nurse Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who recognises him as the Wolverine. She is prepared to pay him to transport her and a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a safe haven in North Dakota known as ‘Eden’. Despite initial misgivings, Logan agrees, but the nurse is murdered by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced employee of the Transigen biotech corporation who is tracking Laura aided by his private army of Reavers. Laura stows away with Logan and when Pierce and the Reavers come for her she is revealed to be a deadly mutant weapon with claws like Logan’s. Xavier claims that Laura is the mutant that he has detected. 

Gabriela’s cell-phone diary reveals that Laura is part of a programme run by Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), to create mutant children from existing DNA samples, Laura has been bred from Logan’s DNA. Superseded by the creation of X-24, a violent adult mutant, the children were to be terminated, but Gabriela and other members of the nursing staff released as many as they could. Xavier insists that he and Logan take Laura to Eden, but Logan discovers that the notion of the safe haven is from an old X-Men comic-book and, as he says, only a third of the things in the comics ever happened and they didn’t happen like that. Pursued by the Reavers and the murderous X-24, Logan and Laura gradually bond on the road until the violent climax.

With a relatively small cast, and a simple story, Logan can concentrate on character and performances, Jackman and Stewart’s tetchy sparring and trading of f-bombs is a particular highlight, as is Stephen Merchant’s west-country Caliban. The film is very violent, perhaps unnecessarily so, one recalls a correspondent complaining to the X-Men comic’s letter page about the juvenile appeal of the Wolverine character, ‘he drinks, he smokes, he slices and dices’. There is some humour, Logan overseeing Xavier’s toilet visits, and later launching a Basil Fawlty style attack on his recalcitrant vehicle. Dafne Keen is impressive in a largely mute role, and just about makes you believe a genetically enhanced feral 11-year-old with claws could carve up burly thugs twice her size.



There are extras as usual, with a director’s commentary and deleted scenes.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Trespass Against Us

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Sean Harris, Lyndsey Marshal, and Rory Kinnear

Director: Adam Smith  

99 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

Referred to, in some parts of the quality press, as a new British gangster movie, Trespass Against Us is hardly that. Set in rural Gloucestershire with accents to match, and dealing with family conflict, it’s hardly a travellers (pejorative redacted by reviewer) Godfather. The Cutler family, with their wagons in a circle in an English meadow, go hare-coursing by estate car, and spend their evenings around big bonfires, when they are not out thieving. Dominated by the figure of Colby (Brendan Gleeson) a flat-earth creationist who justifies their itinerant existence by reference to Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, basically ‘jog-on’, they are not an attractive bunch, nor is any attempt made to present them as such. Colby’s illiterate son Chad (Michael Fassbender) yearns for a different life, where his kids can go to school, get the education he lacks, and exploit the interweb for everything it’s worth. 



Early in the film Colby organises a protest to draw attention to the imprisonment of Chad’s brother Brian. The protest does not take the form of a petition to be handed to a local MP, or a sit-in outside the town assizes, rather Chad is instructed to paint a stolen hatchback bright yellow, daub it with slogans such as ‘Free Brian’, and ‘Fuck You Gavvers’, and drive it at breakneck speed around local shopping-malls and housing-estates. Chad comes up against a local bobby, the quaintly-named PC Lovage, a cheery soul who vows to get him.



Things go badly wrong when Colby organises a literal smash-and-grab raid on a local stately home, which turns out to be the residence of the Lord Lieutenant. Quite why he does this is never clear because, as Lovage points out, the raid makes the national news, and mobilises the constabulary to come out in, well, force, with helicopters and armed units. Does Colby want to head off what he sees as Chad’s rebellion by initiating a spell inside? Nothing is ever clear.

Despite the extreme unattractiveness of the Cutler entourage to nice, sheltered, middle-class reviewers like me, the film is nicely-paced and the performances are excellent, as may be expected from such a top-notch cast. Fassbender is as mesmeric as always, Lyndsey Marshal is brilliant and believable as Chad’s wife Kelly, wanting a life away from her father-in-law’s pernicious hold on her husband and her grandson Tyson. Georgie Smith as Tyson, and Kacie Anderson as his sister Mini, are excellent as the youngest Cutlers. Brendan Gleeson is horribly convincing as the paterfamilias using the Bible, his old Dad’s ‘wisdom’, and a sense of injustice and persecution to justify a life outside of the law. 



Unfortunately, the film ultimately fails to deliver a coherent narrative. There is a growing atmosphere of unease around the likelihood of conflict, but that conflict never comes.  Colby scuppers Chad’s chances to move onto a decent estate, all chalets and static caravans, and the pair have a brief scuffle. Colby seems to be making veiled threats against Kelly. The ‘cracked’ Gordon Bennett (Sean Harris) seems to be a danger, hurling fire extinguishers onto bonfires and trying to attach himself to Chad’s family, but in a scene of unnecessary cruelty Chad takes out his frustration and anger at Colby by covering Gordon in bright blue paint. 

Then, suddenly, just as the film appears to be reaching an inevitable flashpoint, when Chad is rebuffed in his attempts to buy a pedigree puppy for Tyson’s birthday, he ‘steals’ the puppy (he actually leaves the money) and gets arrested. Climbing an oak tree, he is joined by his son, exchanges declarations of love with his family, and in a Butch and Sundance moment with Tyson, leaps down into a safety net and into police custody. To quote Leiber and Stoller, ‘Is That All There Is?’ 


There are the usual extras: a ‘making of’ made up of interviews with cast and production team, and a film about director Adam Smith’s relationship with The Chemical Brothers.  Smith has collaborated with the band for some 20 years, on videos and stage presentations, and the soundtrack for Trespass Against Us was provided by Tom Rowlands. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Stormy Monday

Cast: Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting, Sean Bean, and James Cosmo

Writer and director: Mike Figgis

93 minutes (15) 1988
widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
         
Most reviews of this feature praise the performances at the expense of the story and carp at the pace, the understatement and treat it as if it were a poor relation of Get Carter. Apart from the Newcastle setting, evocatively photographed by Roger Deakins (Jarhead, The Village), and the gangster elements of the plot, there is little in common with the earlier movie except that this is another impressive addition to the stable of British noir.

Brendan (Sean Bean, Silent Hill, Flightplan) takes a job as a cleaner at The Key Club, a Jazz venue on Newcastle’s quayside run by Finney (Sting, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels), during that town’s American week, and overhears a plan to intimidate the club owner into signing over his property. An American businessman Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones, The Missing, Men In Black) is in town buying up property with the tacit approval of the local council in order to foster urban regeneration; we later discover the plan is part of a money-laundering scheme while Cosmo faces a Senate inquiry back in New York. Finney, piqued by the original heavy-handed approach from Cosmo’s aides, is refusing to sell up and the stage seems set for violence, with Brendan, the quiet loner, somehow coming to the rescue.


Having set-up the scenario, Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), who wrote the screenplay, as well as directing and composing the incidental music, thwarts expectations; Finney is no effete club owner but a tough operator with connections, Brendan is no tough guy just a sensitive artistic soul steeped in American culture. The film is not a condemnation of American cultural imperialism; the local council are out to milk the newcomers, local businesses are showing record profits during American week.

Brendan meets and falls for Kate (Melanie Griffith, Tempo), who works at a local restaurant but is involved with Cosmo as an escort/ honey-trap in his wooing of local council officials. Kate’s attempts to escape Cosmo’s patronage, and Brendan’s involvement with Finney’s equally dangerous game, set the scene for violence and tragedy.


Albert Finney apparently turned down the part of Finney (directorial joke?) as he felt the screenplay was ‘too cutty,’ but the montage effects, which almost languidly bombard the viewer with images from the very out-set, wholly compliment the atmosphere of rising tension; streetlights are reflected in the polished hood of a cruising Jaguar car, a square in the town contains a huge inflatable Coke bottle like something imagined by Claus Oldenburg, The Krakow Jazz Ensemble perform a Hendrix-esque rendition of The Stars And Stripes at a civic reception, violent photographic newsreel images by Weegie, decorate the restaurant of the same name where Kate works, Brendan’s room is filled with images of Gable and books by Hemingway, his wardrobe consists of white shorts, crisp white shirts, chinos and a leather jacket; everything creates a sense not of colonisation but cultural displacement.



This is a tremendous, overlooked, low-key, haunting genre movie by a real English auteur and deserves at the very least a place on the syllabus at film school. There is a fascinating director's commentary as part of the extras.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Pulse

cast: Kumiko Aso, Harujiko Kato, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, and Koyuki

writer and director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

115 minutes (15) 2001 widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail
[released 10th July]

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

“Would you like to meet a ghost?” Take note of the wording of that question from this movie. In marked contrast to The Sixth Sense, this extraordinary Japanese chiller is not concerned with just seeing dead people, ‘all the time’, it’s about actually meeting them. Furthermore, like John Carpenter’s under-rated Prince Of Darkness, this harks back to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials for its thematic inspiration, and varied genre references. Viewers requiring easily digestible rationalisations from screen fiction are advised to look elsewhere for their home entertainment. The original publicity for this DVD release made a major play of the fact that Pulse (aka: Kairo) predates acclaimed shockers, The Grudge and The Ring, but that was only true of the US remakes, not their Asian originals Ju-on (TV movie, 2000) and Ringu. None of that really matters, however, because Pulse is quite superior to any of those pictures.

The initial phase of its scenario is somewhat reminiscent of something out of British cult-TV series Sapphire And Steel (1979-82), but without, of course, the prompt appearance of detectives from a nameless paranormal ‘agency’ capable of solving the mystery - and fixing whatever’s gone tragically wrong. With unhurried pacing, moments of scary delirium, and an instantly likeable young cast, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) ensures Pulse intrigues and fascinates like all the best sci-fi horror. A solitary IT man, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), overdue with the delivery of a computer disc, quickly (and very quietly!) hangs himself in the next room when he’s visited at home by worried co-worker, Michi (Kumiko Aso). The CD-ROM rapidly spreads a bizarre ‘virus’ that causes a spate of suicides.

Shadowy figures lurk in public buildings or private residences. Normal TV programmes are suddenly on the blink, mobile phones fail to work or only receive calls from dead people, and haunted ‘forbidden rooms’ sealed with red tape (that serves multiple symbolic functions throughout the narrative) are now found on every backstreet. As the most hi-tech gadget-conscious, consumer culture on Earth, perhaps it’s no big surprise that Pulse’s digital apocalypse starts in Japan, where the ‘permanent shadows’ of Hiroshima suggest a powerful resonance for this supernatural movie’s uncanny images.



Despite the plot’s focus on technology, it’s female intuition that leads some of the main characters into shocking discoveries and mortal danger. Taguchi’s colleague Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) is next in line for a confrontation with an eerie spectre. He soon becomes withdrawn and lethargic, and the increasingly familiar pattern of death-wishful thinking dominates his limited future. Avoiding computers offers no protection from the blitz of elemental chaos. Economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato, Another Heaven) hardly knows enough to connect a home PC to the Internet, safely, but his desktop link has no immunity to the invasive psychic entropy.

College undergraduate and IT-tutor Harue (former model Koyuki, from Zwick’s The Last Samurai) investigates the origins of creepy web-cam footage showing brooding spectres in tireless-as-rust action replays, and reflects on the lack of genuine social contact in an urban civilisation where TV lays claim to ‘reality’ (and elsewhere, a gardener comments sagaciously on the insincerity of friendships in modern life). But, in spite of her philosophical insights, Harue still ends up lonely and utterly distraught, reluctantly acknowledging that “nothing changes... after death.” She is cruelly overwhelmed by something inexplicable that’s “no longer a faint presence” in the everyday human world, and she’s not comforted by Kawashima’s pragmatic optimism. It’s particularly sad to see the cheerful Junko (Kurume Arisaka, making her film debut) succumb to the prevailing sickness of ‘zombified’ wraith-dom, in one of this evocative drama’s most distressing scenes. Following the frightening disappearance of Junko, the despairing Michi phones home. Her mother answers, but there’s nobody there...



Kawashima finds the missing Harue’s science lab abandoned and wrecked. In the sparkling rainbow lights of a games arcade, the virtually formless apparition of a wandering spirit is truly unnerving but, adding to desperate survivors’ continuing misery, sinister forces come oozing from another realm into corporeality. Are you getting this message... or is it just a trick of the light? The low-key CGI work is startlingly effective. There are only a few ‘spectaculars’ (a burning city, a plane crash in the urban wasteland) during the narrative’s gripping climax, yet all such moments are always entirely relevant to the story, never gratuitous special effects shots that undermine the plot’s carefully wrought tension. The occasionally shrill music and unearthly sound effects of early scares gives way to melancholy strings, and the closing score is neatly wrapped up with a westernised rock theme song (Hane by Cocco) that’s actually rather good.

Putting most Hollywood genre thrillers to shame, Pulse delivers a brilliant vision of the end of the world that ingeniously avoids the usual pitfalls of sci-fi clich├ęs. As such, it is highly recommended to fans of thought-provoking, fantastic cinema.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Amityville Horror

Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, and Murray Hamilton

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

117 minutes (15) 1979
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Second Sight blu-ray Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

After domestic shockers like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), but before The Shining (1980) and Poltergeist (1982), The Amityville Horror is based on a true story. Here, $80,000 seems too much for newlyweds to pay for a riverside home in Long Island, New York. The now iconic front with its quadrant attic windows, that appear like glaring eyes, gives the place a distorted face but “Houses don’t have memories,” claims George (a beardy James Brolin) until a fatal despair settles upon him.

An instant swarm of flies in a back bedroom quickly sees off the visiting priest because he cannot bless the cursed. Hubby wakes up at 3:15 am just like clockwork and things go rapidly downhill from then, especially on dark and stormy nights when the door gets torn off its hinges. It’s the kind of drama where strongly sincere overacting is not only favourable but absolutely necessary as the best response to various supernatural events, and the hyper-reality of a nightmarish scenario where demonic weirdness is married to a memorable score.


Irony abounds in the studied grace of secularly educated Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) whose great faith in holy spirits and the strength of his beliefs remains stronger than the placatory brotherhood of the church, whose generally blithe, business-as-usual, attitude, saying “we create our own demons in our minds,” is inadequate when a family of souls are clearly in mortal danger. More than just a classic haunting melodrama, The Amityville Horror skewers the piety of traditional Christian values while exposing the much vaunted ‘American dream’ to sinister powers of darkness lurking beneath conventional knowledge of colonial history and the glossy surface of 20th century culture.   


The prequel Amityville II: The Possession (1982) kicked off the burgeoning franchise and sequels, starting with the gimmicky Amityville 3-D (1983), and continuing ten-years-later with Sandor Stern’s Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (1989), elaborating upon the original’s familiar genre themes. A competent remake in 2005 took its cues from some imitators of this movie. 


Stunningly restored at 1080p with a transfer re-mastered in hi-def for this Blu-ray limited edition steel-book, the disc includes: Brolin Thunder - a new interview with the actor; Child’s Play - a new interview with Meeno Peluce; Amityville Scribe - a new interview with screenwriter Sandor Stern; and The Devil In The Music - a new interview with composer Lalo Schifrin. Bonus material: My Amityville Horror - a feature-length documentary with Daniel Lutz, For God’s Sake, Get Out! - a featurette with James Brolin and Margot Kidder, an intro by Dr Hans Holzer (author of the book Murder in Amityville), and a commentary track by Holzer.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Patriots Day

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and Michelle Monaghan

Director: Peter Berg  

133 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate blu-ray Region 2
[Released 26th June]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Following the director’s docudrama Deepwater Horizon, this crime thriller depicts the events, and the aftermath, of the Boston marathon bombing that shocked America in April 2013. The atrocity occurs while BPD Sergeant Tommy Saunders is on duty at the race's finishing line, and this fictional character, played by Mark Wahlberg, offers the movie’s appealing viewpoint. FBI agent DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) provides the drama with its keen focus and a winning portrayal of an intelligent investigator aware of the varied faults of the slow-moving federal system. And that's especially a problem when facing demands for an immediate resolution to a crisis in urban law enforcement by the city's police Commissioner Davis (John Goodman).


Patriots Day partly concerns acute sensitivity to multiple trauma cases as the core of its human tragedy, while the storyline also notes the likelihood of media manipulation, about conspiracy theories, and the sometimes bitter irony of who really believes such ridiculous stories of US government responsibility or culpability in horrors like the WTC destruction of 2001. With a fairly weak plot that alternates between profoundly moving episodes of individual courage and survival instincts, and somewhat crude sentimentality about community and nationalism that never escapes from a usual mode of expression in speeches and rallying cries, this movie never quite manages to electrify the cinema screen as it ought to have done.  




However, as he proved with The Kingdom (2007), Peter Berg is extraordinarily capable of directing an exciting and expertly choreographed action sequence, or two. Here, that skill is evident in the dramatic tension of the car-jacking scene, but it explodes into view during the ‘wild west’ night when young villains are firebombing cop cars. In action movie terms, the extended shoot-out on a residential street in sleepy Watertown is a masterclass in suburban-thriller filmmaking that’s just as exhilarating for the 21st century as Die Hard was for the 1980s. The small town cops under siege are the heroes of the hour, and for genuine ‘true grit’ in this impressive sequence, look no further than the great J.K. Simmons as Sergeant Pugliese.