Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Mechanic: Resurrection

Cast: Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and Sam Hazeldine

Director: Dennis Gansel

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

Rating: 6/10
Review by Rob Marshall

The original ‘Mechanic’ was Charles Bronson, star of Michael Winner’s cult crime thriller The Mechanic (aka: Killer Of Killers, 1972). Bronson’s portrayal of hit-man Arthur Bishop was one of his best performances, a cold-blooded calculating assassin who made people die in accidents. Simon West’s remake The Mechanic (2011) was a much slicker affair, a vehicle for Jason Statham to maintain his usual screen persona as martial artist but also rise above the simplistic hard-man attitudes of his familiar Frank Martin role in the trilogy of Transporter actioners, but also refrain from the outright craziness of antihero Chev in a couple of Crank flicks. As a remake, Statham’s Mechanic was, at least, a better drama than Gary McKendry’s rather tired and tiresomely dull Killer Elite (2011), which recycled the title of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975), but chose an entirely different novel as its source material.      

Mechanic: Resurrection is a more than competent sequel. When he is forced to flee his hideaway in Brazil, Bishop decamps to a beachfront in Thailand where he contacts Mei (Michelle Yeoh), but the clever bad guys find him there, too. Bishop’s new girlfriend Gina (Jessica Alba) is taken hostage in order to force Bishop into killing off the kidnapper’s equally crooked rivals. Statham proves he is a better action movie star than just playing Stallone’s younger sidekick in The Expendables trilogy. Here, Statham is like a one-man ‘Mission: Impossible’ team. His targets are the top-dog convict in a Malaysian prison, an Australian billionaire in a fortress penthouse, and Bond-style super-villain Max (Tommy Lee Jones).

There’s a fair bit of romantic drama between the shoot ‘em ups and inevitable explosions, and Bishop is very sneaky when it comes to causing ‘accidents’ yet formidable in combat, with or without weapons. Mechanic: Resurrection is a perfect antidote to all the mindless action blockbusters (starring Stallone or Cruise) that are nothing more than shamelessly noisy wallpaper for popcorn feasts. Statham’s Bishop is not the same as Bronson’s. He is a standard antihero, but one with redeeming features. In the end, his escape from the killing business is a happy conclusion that doesn't seem too clichéd. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Guyver

Out on dual format - Monday 19th December


Having been smuggled out of the mysterious Chronos Corporation by one of its researchers, a bio-weapon known as the “Guyver” unit – which transforms its holder into a lethal super-being – ends up in the hands of Sean, a young martial arts student. Sean soon finds himself in the sights of the Chronos Corporation and its mutant henchmen, who’ll stop at nothing to retrieve the weapon.

Produced by Brian Yuzna (Society, Bride Of Re-Animator) and co-directed by special-effects masters Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang, The Guyver is an FX-laden extravaganza featuring a plethora of familiar genre faces such as Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and David Gale (Re-Animator).

Mark Hamill (Star Wars) and the team behind horror classic Re-Animator join forces for this electrifying live-action adaptation of Yoshiki Takaya’s celebrated manga series!

Brand new digital transfer of the Director’s Cut
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
Original uncompressed audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Brand new interview with producer Brian Yuzna
Image Gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nick Percival
First pressing only: Fully-illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film

Friday, 9 December 2016

12 Monkeys - Season 2

Cast: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, and Emily Hampshire

Developed for TV by Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas

546 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

“Do you believe in fate?” Intriguing sci-fi series 12 Monkeys wraps the timeline crises of TV shows like Continuum, and the TimeCop movie franchise, around the portable enigma of Terry Gilliam’s puzzler Twelve Monkeys (1995). Its curious pedigree includes riffs and references to Chris Marker’s experimental production, La Jetee (1962), an over-praised art-house movie with very little actually motion because it’s basically just a montage of still photos. As if the paradox of time-travel is not enough of a tangled plot, this drama weaves a layered conspiracy in the century-spanning mystery of what or who caused the apocalypse.

Dr Cassie Railly (Amanda Schull) wants to warn the world and plan for a global pandemic, especially after she is told that in the near-future a terrible plague wipes out most of the population. The origin of the virus is traced to secret experiments in bio-labs called the Night Room. The controller of time-travel in 2043, German scientist Jones (Barbara Sukowa) scours news archives for clues about suspected terrorists known only as the 12 Monkeys.

The debut episode of season one borrows the ‘long second’ time-freeze from low-budget classic Trancers (1984). Other episodes include homage scenes to Terminator movies. A cascade of wrong place and wrong time mistakes put bold traveller Cole (Aaron Standford) in North Korea, 2006. Thankfully, all the splintering and slingshots eventually get our hero exactly where and when he needs to be, or not to be. Will he do everything for nothing, so that his own life can be erased from the future?

The plot-line and main players are rightly paranoid about many paradoxical changes that might invalidate cause and effect. Tick-tock is not always progressive here. When a solution to the main monkey business is to rewrite history, “I told you so” is not an option. Conflicts arise when a time-travel mission is opposed by another group trying to find a cure with quarantine camps under martial control, instead of preventing the original outbreak. It becomes a worthy case of preserving hope versus taking radical action for salvation.

“The dark time must be sacrificed to restore a brighter one.”

Somewhat perversely, season one’s climactic sequence happens further in the past than anything else, when pivotal events affecting Cole and his buddy Ramse occur in a Tokyo nightclub in 1987. After much toing and froing the drip-feed of clues solve part of the big mystery conspiracy that unfolds in layers, just like a 24 plot. And, like Jack Bauer in 24, Cole is forced to live and re-live the worst days of his life, with irony that is occasionally reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993).

Madhouse maiden Jennifer (Emily Hampshire) conceals her emotional fragility beneath her noisy mask of crazy-bitch banter. “Maybe your always and my always are not the same.” There are plenty more fascinating twists as timeline detailing is revealed like a top secrets plot. Or, perhaps, unravelled like a faulty scheme or a flawed master-plan. The blonde heroine’s overly possessive boyfriend Aaron Marker (the franchise’s notable name-check) keeps on promising to save Cassie from herself, whether she wants his help or not.

“You cannot run from fate.” Season Two goes back and forth again, with Cole stuck in 2016, Budapest, while Cassie is held captive in 2043, where Dr Jones fails to stop the religious cult of Messengers from taking control of her time machine. This eventually results in her shifting over to another timeline: “You were not part of my original reality,” she tells her new husband.

In New York, crazy Jennifer tries suicidal speed-dating, because ‘being single is not the end of the world,’ although it is the Chinese calendar’s new year of the monkey. Ninja gang, the Daughters, led by the aged Jennifer in 2045, demand the return of Cole to their time. On another narrative track, it’s destination 1944: where a revised scheme for the original plotters who just wanna turn the world red occurs, while taking advantage of primary victims willing, or not, to die for their mysterious cause.

Like in Sliders (1995 - 2000), a hotel is the frequently used rendezvous point in several time-zones and eras. There’s also a magical house in the red-tinged surreality of a red forest dream-scape that’s a link to an even stranger puzzle of time-stream consciousness and the much-talked-about Witness, who seems like a muse for some but is a menace to others. The time-fractured house is a building with a similar narrative function as unusual character, like the barn in TV series Haven (2010-5).

A mission to 1975 has our heroes prevent a murder they were not supposed to, and so doing something good seems just as likely to disrupt timelines as doing something nasty. This avoids the spoofy appeal of Life On Mars (2006-7), and/ or Ashes To Ashes (2008-10). With its dooms-days plot and 'Witness' antagonist, borrowings from the classic movie Timescape (aka: Grand Tour: Disaster In Time, 1992) are inevitable.

Changeable alliances and variable motivations mean that some characters act like loyal sidekicks and eccentric stereotypes, but often reveal far greater depths - and not just a revenge for any betrayal - than we imagined when they appear or re-appear in different timeline plot-twists. With prodigal sons and resurrected daughters, awkward silences and tragic shoot-outs are happening now, soon, or back then, as the plot-line extends to span a hundred years of discontinuity.

This season, Jennifer is especially good fun whenever she’s quoting (sometimes cheesy) movie dialogues to hilariously motivational effect. Prompted by Madeleine Stowe’s guest appearance, Cole quits his rural idyll with pregnant Cassie in 1959 for a trippy pilgrimage through decades (like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, 1972). Of course, there is yet another cliff-hanger ending, tantalising us with possibilities for season three. “The Witness has spoken.”

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Cohen And Tate

Cast: Roy Scheider, Adam Baldwin, Harley Cross, Cooper Huckabee, and Suzanne Savoy

Director: Eric Red

86 minutes (15) 1988
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

“This job is bad.”

Cool but not heartless Cohen (Roy Scheider), a 30 year veteran of the murder business is reluctantly teamed-up with sulky novice, Tate (Adam Baldwin), a gum-chewing hot-head for 350 miles worth of road movie, en route to a meeting with mobsters in Houston. They have kidnapped a young boy, Travis (Harley Cross, who later appeared in The Believers, The Boy Who Cried Bitch, and Perdita Durango), from a rural safe house guarded by FBI agents.

Cohen And Tate is a cult low-budget crime thriller that quickly becomes a slow-burning character study of the differences between a world-weary mercenary and a death-hungry psychopath. Like director Eric Red’s earlier screenplay for Robert Harmon’s classic movie The Hitcher (1986), and following Stephen Frears’ under-valued The Hit (1984), this is a stylish melodrama in which every cigarette smoked seems like it might be a lit fuse-wire, primed for an explosive climax.

The cunning kid provokes antagonism shared by his captors into a violent confrontation, as they drive through a world of nocturnal indifference, on interstate highways and back roads towards a bloody hell, just as dawn and the simmering tension breaks. There are a number of witty plot twists, all evenly matched by the movie’s oppressive and ultimately tragic intensity.

The movie looks marvellous in this hi-def transfer, and the soundtrack crackles with eerie moments. As another vague adaptation of O. Henry’s celebrated short story, The Ransom Of Red Chief (1907), Cohen And Tate applies its ironic tone with exquisite care, taking no chances that might undermine the grim and gritty aspects of an underworld kidnap case. It is a newly minted cinematic version of the familiar tale, and benefits from its decidedly formal composition of many shots and scenes.    

“How about that?”

Disc extras:
An audio commentary by writer-director Eric Red
A Look Back at Cohen & Tate, a retrospective documentary featuring Eric Red, cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, editor Edward Abroms, and co-stars Kenneth McCabe and Harley Cross
Red’s original storyboards for the farmhouse shoot-out
Original uncut versions of the farmhouse and oilfield shoot-outs
Original theatrical trailer
Extensive stills gallery

Saturday, 3 December 2016


Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, and Melissa Leo

Director: Joseph Kosinski

124 minutes (12) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2 

Rating: 7/10 review by Andrew Darlington

As far as big mainstream post-apocalypse CGI blockbusters go, this is a pretty smart movie. But not quite as smart as it thinks it is. The central gimmick is the familiar Philip K. Dick false-memory thing; the everything-you-think-you-know is a lie syndrome. And Tom Cruise - unhooking his cruise-control mode, confronts the role with genuine gravitas, to salvage it with some dignity. Director Joseph Kosinski (ex-Tron: Legacy, 2010) originally envisaged the plot as a graphic novel, so the visual content is accordingly dramatic.

It’s 14th March 2077, a half-century since the alien Scavengers destroyed the Moon, creating global catastrophe. And Jack Harper, Tech-49 (Cruise), flies his bubble-ship over vast desolations strewn with stranded cargo ships, submarines, and the land-locked Golden Gate Bridge. The Lincoln Monument is skewed at 45 degrees to serve the iconic purpose that the Statue of Liberty did in the original Planet Of The Apes (1968). And there are some striking perspectives of black silhouette figures against the amber cloud-scapes of Harper’s airborne Tower, although the full visual potential of the asteroidal fragments of the shattered Moon is under-realised, as it’s only fleetingly glimpsed in the corner of the sky.

Co-ordinated by on-screen Sally (Melissa Leo) aboard the giant wedge-shaped Tet space fortress, it’s Harper’s task - with his lover-partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), to mop-up stray Scav parties - “we won the war, but lost the planet,” and to protect the huge Hydro-Rigs that convert seawater into fusion energy for a new refuge-colony on Titan. But Harper is troubled by black-and-white memory sequences of New York - and a girl he met beside the Empire State Building viewing platform, before the war, before he was born.

This presents an obvious paradox, complicated further by his five-year memory-wipe that’s mandatory because we “can’t have your precious memories falling into the wrong hands.” Tracking a malfunctioning drone into a sinkhole replete with carpets and chandeliers, he finds a poetry book, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s narrative epic Lays Of Ancient Rome (1842), telling how heroic Horatius held the bridge against the Etruscan army, and ‘how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers’. It strikes a chord.

He squirrels the book away in a slim library at his idyllic lakeside cabin hidden by the ‘radiation zones’, where he also keeps his stash of vinyl albums - Duran Duran, Blue Oyster Cult, Exiles On Main Street (1972), and from where the stylus cues into Ramble On from Led Zeppelin II (1969), blasting out from his solar-powered turntable. If the Scavs arrived in 2017, this must still be considered a fashionably retro collection. And maybe the quizzical viewer will wonder; if such pockets of perfection still exist on Earth, why survivors are supposedly in the process of migrating to inhospitable Titan - Saturn’s largest moon and a freezing poisonous world, using the Tet as a staging point? Needless to stay, gum-chewing Harper wishes to stay here, while Victoria wants to leave by the two-week deadline, “we’ve done our job. It’s time to go.” She strengthens her argument with sweet soft-focus aquatic sex in their tower. Does she know more than she lets on?

Straddling his two-wheel speed-bike, his ‘cool’ Ray-Bans also act as part of his memory-prompts. But things begin to go seriously off-kilter when a surface beam triggered by the so-far unseen Scavs directs Harper to the crash-site of NASA deep-spaceship ‘The Odyssey’. Within the delta-sleep life-pods rescued from the wreck is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the girl from his memory-vision, his wife. As far as big mainstream post-apocalypse CGI blockbusters go, this is a pretty smart movie. But not quite as smart as it thinks it is. And this is the start of the everything-you-think-you-know is a lie unravelling. Victoria is predictably hostile – protesting “we don’t know who she is, or what she is,” before she’s conveniently zapped and killed in a drone-attack.

“You are not who you think you are,” Julia tells him. Before they’re promptly captured by the Scavs, who – beneath their Mad Max style regalia, turn out not to be alien at all, but human survivors led by a wise Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman) who quotes Lays Of Ancient Rome back at him. Harper uses his Top Gun skills in aerial dog-fights with rogue drones coded to his DNA and tasked with chasing him down, with requisite explosions and hazards, he deliberately flies into an electrical storm to confuse them, and then employs the old hiding-behind-the-waterfall ploy. There’s a 'Death Star' canyon pursuit, after which he crash-lands in the rad-wastes to confront - and fight... himself! The real ‘he’ is identifiable only by the cut on the bridge of his nose. Accessing Tech-52’s Tower for a med-kit he finds the dead Victoria alive and well.

He takes Julia to his secret lakeside retreat where the somnolent organ-tones of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale unfurl in unexpected juxtaposition, and she tells him “you always loved this song.” His memory-sequences now come in colour, telling him that the original crew of ‘The Odyssey’ – including Victoria, Harper himself and wife Julia, encountered an alien object – the Tet, while en route for Saturn. The real Sally was the original NASA controller. Taken over, thousands of cloned and memory-wiped versions of Harper were then programmed to mop-up – not predatory aliens, but human survivors after the Moon-smash. There is no Titan colony. The hydro-rigs are sucking the planet dry.

Strike-back time. In a patchwork of mix-match part-theft part-homage images, there are 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) slo-mo spacecraft turning bits. There are Independence Day (1996) moments as Harper with the delta-sleep pod supposedly containing Julia approaches the Tet, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) flashbacks as they navigate within the immense structure, with glimpses of honeycomb-cells of preserved figures. Harper and Victoria clones? It’s as though sci-fi has become less about conceptual shocks and more concerned with re-combinations of reassuringly familiar tropes. Until, like Horatius, Harper holds the bridge alone. Well, except for the subterfuge of Beech, replacing Julia in the stasis-cabinet. “I created you Jack, I am your god,” protests Sally. As they trigger the detonation and destroy the ‘object’.

Three years later, Julia enjoys a hippie back-to-nature lifestyle with Harper’s daughter in the idyllic lakeside cabin, where other survivors gather - joined of course... by another Jack, the memory-restored Tech-52. You can’t kill Tom Cruise for long!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Ender's Game

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford , Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis   

Director: Gavin Hood

114 minutes (12) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
E1 DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When I understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, then in that moment, I also love him” - A.E. Wiggin

Some years after he was Han Solo, and a few years before he was Han Solo again in the Star Wars re-boot, Harrison Ford was a humour-free Colonel Hyrum Graff in this militaristic SF oddity. The DVD edition has trailers for Divergent (2014) – which sets the kidult/ young-adults expectations, and Ford in geek-techie drama Paranoia (2013) which also ties in neatly. For the dubious premise here is that kids with on-screen play-station skills – ‘raised on war-games’, are sharper, faster and less judgment-clouded, hence best suited for directing strategies in vast galactic real space-battles. According to the narrator’s introduction, 50 years prior to the movie’s first moments, ‘tens of millions died’ when a fleet of huge bug-shaped alien ships crewed by the ant-like Formic attack Earth. Jets counter-attack in high-speed aerial dog-fights before heroic Mazer Rackham rams the hive-mind’s mother-ship, saving the world.

And so, because “we’ve been preparing for them to come back ever since,” there’s a genuine planetary threat. As Graff argues, “when the war is over we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we do.” On the international fleet’s orbital battle-school, gruff Graff watches troubled outsider Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) progress, noting the skinny little runt’s bad attitude and ‘talent for strategy’. His ‘complicated response to authority’ and vicious survival instinct, ably demonstrated when he beats an older bully above and beyond retaliation - in order to win all the other fights to come. Ender has a supportive sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and a jealous older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), but in an overpopulated world, that makes him the stigmatised ‘third’ child.

Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie) does the tough disciplinarian trainer thing for his ‘launchies’ in competitive zero-gravity strategy games with all the usual tedious rite-of-passage martial Private Benjamin raw-recruit boot-camp clichés - a popular plotline in mainstream media, but one that Starship Troopers (1997) at least had the perception to treat with a sharp satiric edge. Graff further pokes and prods Ender behind the scenes into a series of stressful confrontations through which he gains the grudging respect of his team. As simultaneously, an on-screen problem-solving mind-game teaches him ‘follow the rules, you lose’. Promoted into the Salamander army, petty-minder Punk Bonzo (Moises Arias) tries to intimidate him, while Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) befriends him. Given an oddball misfit team - the Dragons - of his own, he pushes them hard but on a more interactive democratic basis, and naturally defeats the Salamanders. When he accidentally paralyses a vindictive Bonzo in a shower-room fight, his remorse forces a showdown with Graff, in which Ender quits.

Although not specified in the film, the book on which it’s based reveals Ender to be just ten-years-old at the time of his training. Orson Scott Card, who co-produced the film and wrote the novel, is a curiously unique SF writer, not necessarily in a good way. His religious context and anti-gay sentiments have repelled many, even when they are only subliminally infused into his fiction. A short story - Ender’s Game, in US magazine Analog (August 1977), was first gathered into Card's collection Unaccompanied Sonata (1981), was then expanded into his 1985 novel, which led to sequels including Speaker For The Dead (1986), Xenocide (1991), and Ender In Exile (2008). Card also introduces elements from his parallel novel Ender’s Shadow (1999) to flesh out the movie’s background. John Clute’s insightful essay on Card (in Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, 1995), stresses the tight Mormon-informed family-centric nature of his plots, and it is the young hero’s sister Valentine who first figures in a metaphorical fantasy-sequence in which Ender also encounters a Formic (a ‘Bugger’ in the novels!), and her again, in an idyllic lakeside setting, who talks him into returning.

The movie’s emphasis switches sharply here. Instead of being taken back to the orbital battle-school, as he’d expected, Ender is posted to the Advance Command Base, a complex built into alien tunnels from which the Formic have been expelled, and overlooking the enemy’s own home planet. It becomes apparent that rather than defensively awaiting the next invasion-wave, the international fleet is proactively taking the war directly into the alien system. Who are the aggressors now? “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” explains Graff, referring back to Ender’s decisive retaliation against the bully. And there’s the Yoda-like impassivity of a Maori-tattooed Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who survived knocking out the Formic Queen’s mother-ship, in order to advise and tutor Ender through another gruelling series of simulated engagements.

With Formic forces bottled up on their world and yet to make an aggressive move, Ender is reunited with his team, to launch a final graduation simulation attack, sacrificing ships, transporters and dreadnaughts to target the planet itself. They use an MD500 ‘Death Star’ weapon to destroy the alien civilisation completely. Game Over. Except that this was no simulation. The world is genuinely dead. “I will bear the shame of this genocide for ever,” he protests. The ethics of this extermination forms the film’s moral heart, and saving grace. Can atrocity be justified? In a final sequence - as in the symbolist dream of his on-screen game, he enters a wrecked Formic ship and meets the last dying Queen. Establishing the thought-communication process that began in the dream, he pledges to travel the universe, seeking a new home-world for the brood she bequeaths to him.

From its dubious premise through the luxury of debating its muddled morality, this is a less than satisfying film. The effects are routinely stunning, Ford imposes a moody presence, and British-born Butterfield (previously seen in TV series Merlin) acquits himself well despite the inadequacies of the plot. The final turn-around is affecting, and Ender’s attempts to assuage his guilt add a final get-out-free clause. There’s a spin-off video computer game, ‘Use Your Laser Gun To Fire At Targets’. And then Harrison Ford became Han Solo again...

Sunday, 20 November 2016

UFO - The Complete Series

Cast: Ed Bishop, Michael Billington, George Sewell, Gabrielle Drake, and Wanda Ventham

Creator: Gerry Anderson

1300 minutes (12) 1970-3
Network blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Following their excellent hi-def widescreen release of Invasion: UFO (1974) - a movie cut together from TV episodes, Network unleash a fully restored edition of the original series, and UFO is a welcome addition to any sci-fi collection. Few television shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s remain watchable today, especially when dated as genre material, but UFO is not merely tolerable as retro telefantasy, it has long since become iconic. This is a series that influenced and encouraged thinking about UFOlogy and provided a cultish landmark for conspiracy theories to flourish and fester around. The first live-action series created by Gerry Anderson, UFO was set in the ‘future’ of 1980, and it concerns a covert war between Earth and mysterious extraterrestrials. Although Anderson followed his very popular Thunderbirds (1965-6) - about machines as the heroes of ‘International Rescue’, with the darker Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-8) - which employed a similar premise to this, the solemn drama UFO was a great jump in quality and maturity for the former puppets-master of British television.

UFO is a continuation of Wellsian themes from War Of The Worlds, and US TV shows, like Larry Cohen’s The Invaders (1967-8), while it also predates The X-Files. Science fictional espionage was central to the James Bond movie franchise and UFO included spy-fi tropes - such as assassination, surveillance, advanced weapons, and traitors, mixed with stories about orbital debris as dangerous ‘space junk’, mind-control, ESP, and some nightmarish tales of abduction. Since the series is now set in our past, the design of UFO is obviously best appreciated as alternative history, today. This sci-fi aspect of a divergent timeline to ours is especially notable just as much for the show’s futuristic uniforms (silvery cat-suits and string-vests!) and its dated 20th century tech (not very futuristic computers, etc), as for its broadly liberal social mores and a laudably utopian absence of racial prejudice, in a world that is plagued by space warfare.

A former US Air Force colonel, Straker is in command of SHADO - Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, a secret base hidden beneath a working film studio. Straker’s played by Canadian actor Ed Bishop - who had appeared in Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and voiced puppet character Captain Blue in Anderson’s earlier Captain Scarlet, the children’s TV show that might be viewed as a prototype for the more adult-oriented UFO. Bishop’s curious Anglo-American accent and straightforward manner were perfect for the cool yet indomitable Straker, with his trademark blond hairstyle (yet, reportedly, the actor hated that wig!). He presided over a world-spanning military power, including the moon base, and an orbiting telescope capable of detecting and intercepting alien spies anywhere on the planet.

Straker was a decidedly flawed executive hero, with a broken marriage in his tragic past, and too few close friends in his present, even among his most loyal SHADO staff. Bishop essayed Straker’s grim isolation and a heavier burden of responsibility for his character’s position in several episodes - like when he orders astronauts into nuclear combat against UFO attacks, and threatens to personally shoot one of his colleagues after uncovering an assassination plot. Straker was an interestingly stylised ‘Cold War’ warrior - part general officer, part spymaster. And, symbolically at least, he was the ultimate soldier of his sort - clearly a deeply paranoid obsessive willing to engage hostile forces in a wholly fantastic but nevertheless psychologically brutal conflict played out on an interplanetary scale.

Although the origin of the uncanny visitors from the stars is never revealed, Straker often had to suppress his curiosity and settle for the hollow ‘victory’ of simply destroying them. Yet, despite adherence to a strict policy of militaristic response, Straker always managed to retain his humanity and engage the TV viewers’ sympathy, thanks to a finely balanced characterisation by Bishop.

An episode about UFO and human pilots both crashing on the Moon; Survival anticipates the cooperate-or-die notion of movie Enemy Mine (1985). Because the location backdrop used actual MGM studios, the temptation for toying with fantasy and reality proved quite irresistible for the programme’s creators, particularly when Straker is required to pose as an executive producer at the functioning studio, and this led to wholesale breaking of the fourth wall in bewildering thriller Mindbender, where Straker discovers he is just an actor in a TV show about UFOs.

In one instance of life imitating art, technical problems of the Hubble telescope (launched in 1990 by NASA) were reminiscent of a faulty space probe in UFO’s episode Close Up. Of course, fandom has favourite episodes, and those indulging in an even greater weirdness than usual really do standout. The Psychobombs involves random civilians reprogrammed by aliens into a suicidal trio of superhuman terrorists keen on sabotage at security bases. The character-driven Timelash sees Straker baffled and besieged by an enemy agent who stops clocks and freezes part of the world. Our hero’s quick thinking (in four dimensions!) saves the day.

Renowned for its cutting-edge special effects, UFO remains a visually impressive show in respect of its realistic miniatures, which sustained the pre-eminence of Anderson’s genre work. One of the most memorable model sequences in UFO was the Interceptors launch. From a hideaway hanger beneath the Moon’s surface, three space bombers popup out of lunar craters, like some of kind of mechanical trapdoor spiders. They are the first line of space defence against alien invasion. Each of these atomic-powered manned spacecraft is armed with a single nuclear warhead, programmed to launch on a collision course with any threats approaching Earth. The heroes of SHADO had plenty of hardware, including a ‘SkyDiver’ submarine carrying jet aircraft ‘Sky One’ (that launched from underwater), but the trio of Interceptors had a unique design. And, for the 1970s, at least, they did appear to be a convincing portrayal of militarised space age technology.

This hi-def box-set has plenty of extras, including new retro documentary From The Earth To The Moon, featurette The Women Of UFO, some commentary tracks, audio interviews, a new SHADO recruits briefing, deleted scenes, and extensive image galleries. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Oscar Isaac

Director: Bryan Singer

144 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A fantastic tale of gods and men, and a few monsters too, this begins with the betrayal of a despotic ruler in ancient Egypt. Millennia later, director Bryan Singer stages a revival of the mightiest in another Cairo sequence, combining quirky tributes to Indiana Jones, and Kubrick’s 2001, when a long-buried golden pyramid is reactivated by sunlight. Following on from the franchise prequels Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), and Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014), X-Men Apocalypse is yet another super-team flick, of more than two hours, but I’m rather sad to report that this new adventure for mutant-kind does not really get going until halfway through.

With its returning cast intact and several new characters introduced, the first section has an unfortunate tendency to wallow in soap operatic tragedy, and teenage fantasy sitcom, as reclusive Erik, alias Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has his secret identity exposed by an inadvertent yet wholly instinctive act of heroism; while nervous student Scott, soon to be aliased Cyclops, finds his eye-beams make an amusing mutant metaphor for puberty. Meanwhile, that Egyptian super-villain, nameless but easily identifiable as Mr Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), recruits powerful allies including weather-controlling punk-goddess Storm, a heavy metal Angel, and warrior woman Psylocke (Olivia Munn) wearing just the sort of costume that, for once, does justice to the over-sexualised artwork of superhero comics.

Of course, Wolverine makes a quick guest appearance. How else could any X-Men movie get away with all of that ultra-violent mayhem and the requisite slaughter of henchmen? Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game Of Thrones) is great as the telepathic Jean Grey. And, as teleporting devil Nightcrawler, Kodi Smit-McPhee steals the comic-relief limelight. It’s good to see Rose Byrne is back as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. She is effectively the viewpoint character to express suitably quizzical amazement, as mortal sidekick involved with mutants. Standout sequences include another rescue run-around for Quicksilver; the demolition of Auschwitz by Magneto; and a wholly surrealistic, climactic battle of psychics in astral form.

It seems a shame that this movie is set in the arbitrarily chosen year 1983 and not 1985. If Quicksilver is such a big fan of Rush, why the hell didn’t the writers change the setting by two years? Classic tracks, Time Stand Still and/ or Marathon (both from Rush’s album Power Windows, 1985), would have made far better/ more appropriate soundtrack songs to a speedster’s heroics than such tiredly insipid electro-pop as Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), by the Eurythmics. For that matter, any sci-fi movie that deals with astonishing X-Men’s super-powers can and should be given plenty of artistic licence when it comes to rewriting history, so there seems no easily discernable reason why said Rush tracks were not used here. I mean, it was one thing to neglect Rush’s song Ghost Rider, for either of the Ghost Rider movies, but when the Canadian band are specifically name-checked by a prominent character’s T-shirt, it’s quite unforgivable to miss such an obvious opportunity to promote Rush's music in a major cinema production. Is there a Hollywood boycott of Rush songs?

My ranting about soundtrack songs aside, Singer does very well at orchestrating epic levels of destruction and power-plays throughout, and the scale of super-team action sequences are all superbly rendered by John Dykstra’s visual effects company. In every way that really matters X-Men: Apocalypse is a successful addition to its Fox franchise. The movie aims for the creative peak of superhero cinema, exploring the meanings of messiah and madness in a world turned upside down, and nearly hits its elusive target.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Penny Dreadful - The Final Season

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Rory Kinnear, and Harry Treadaway

Creator: John Logan

462 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Reviews by Tony Lee & Steven Hampton  

Although partly inspired by The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore’s graphic novel more than Stephen Norrington’s movie adaptation), John Logan’s Penny Dreadful posits tales of Victorian heroes in fantasy horrors, instead of sci-fi/ fantasy, and plays like a period version of short-lived TV series Demons (2009). As we might expect from the screenwriter of The Aviator and Hugo (both directed by Scorsese), the period details of this BritisHollywood TV series are frequently a bit too colourful to be fully authentic, but there is a charmingly presentable grittiness to location shooting in Ireland that adds some visual poetics. With derivative gothic plotlines - where science and superstition collide - this eight-episode postmodern mash-up of Stoker, Shelley, and Wilde, etc. is an entertaining batch of London legends boasting many deliciously uncanny images and splattery gore moments.

Timothy Dalton, as explorer Sir Malcolm, is the leader of an uneasy alliance with mysterious psychic Vanessa (genre goddess Eva Green), and American gunslinger Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days Of Night). As plain-clothes superheroes, they tackle all manner of gaslight stuff with as much flowery 19th century dialogue as will pass muster in a 21st century media production. Harry Treadaway as the young Victor Frankenstein, and Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, are average TV actors, but most of the supporting cast (that silly girl, Billie Piper, just for starters) really aren’t up to scratch alongside the headliners.

Although heroine Vanessa appears subdued, at first, second episode Séance gifts us with the full intensity of the amazing Miss Green taking on a spirit-channelling role (“if one is to engage with the primordial forces of darkness... expect a bit of social awkwardness”), that will not be forgotten easily. Alun Armstrong is very good as the amusingly polite Grand Guignol showman Brand who calmly recruits Frankenstein’s monster Caliban as his theatre rigger. A couple of episodes feature the very welcome presence of David Warner as Prof. Van Helsing, who is consulted by Dr Frankenstein.

Closer Than Sisters is a great flashback episode guest-starring Anna Chancellor as Vanessa’s mother who struggles to cope with her tormented daughter’s bouts of catatonia and violent seizures. Again, Green turns in a haunting performance - especially during her character’s brutal, harrowing ‘treatment’; proving that Green is a fearless, astonishingly expressive star capable of out-acting what few peers she has in the genre she’s made her own. “How dare you presume to speak to me of death?” Later, when Vanessa starts suffering Carrienetic fits, perverse guilt and quest puzzles converge into a moral crisis under threat of our heroine becoming “the mother of evil,” while she’s in urgent need of an exorcism.  

With excellent production standards, and story-lines that critique but also celebrate a range of literary sources, this blows away all the cobwebs from costume-horror movies and most modern-day efforts, too. Of course, the season’s finale has dark pasts of the main characters catching up with them and drags unfinished business into the spotlight. But it exposes their flaws and shows us their strengths instead of simply following after clichéd patterns of fight-the-fantastic behaviour, and so revels in the “the glory of suffering.”

Penny Dreadful: Season Two continued in much the same vein as its impressive debut, showcasing flashbacks with currency and spotlighting some rural gothic chapters just as much as the urban scenes of uncanny contrasts with the dawning of a modern, scientific age. Season three, Penny Dreadful: The Final Season closes this horror series, and it certainly bows out with plenty of shudders and shocks.

Depressed recluse Vanessa begins visiting a shrink, under whose care she demands and responds to hypno-therapy with theatrical nightmares about secret devils. As usual, Eva Green portrays the matchless archetype of a tormented heroine. And, even with rasping breath from surviving asylum tortures, her husky voice is a crispy dark chocolate liqueur, except for when she goes into levitating witchcraft mode with she howls like a banshee.

The obsessive Frankenstein and ambitious Jekyll team-up for some bold experiments to cure the inmates of Bedlam. Dorian enjoys his operatic threesomes, painted in villains’ blood. Dracula stalks the British capital where he spawns black-eyed anaemic followers that scuttle about like plague rats, hunting and haunting Vanessa, even during daylight hours. Playing an Apache mystic, Wes Studi puts in a fine guest appearance. Brian Cox makes a fist of his role as wealthy patriarch turned family tyrant whose belligerence now dictates a limited future for his prodigal son Ethan. Sir Malcolm travels from Africa to find cowboy Ethan under outlaw circumstances in the USA. Will the American werewolf ever return to London?

Tones of melancholy are broken only natural wonders, desperate promises of salvation for distressed or diseased souls, and once-innocents’ fond memories of better life found mainly in dreams. The programme’s title is used ironically, of course, as if it is offering a penny for humanity’s deepest darkest thoughts. The price of admission must be paid in pounds of torn flesh or gallon buckets of blood. It’s full of dread, not dreadful as artistic entertainment. The wrongly perceived lowbrow culture of malignant horror is elevated to supremacy with references to poets Tennyson and Wordsworth, exploring grim alleyways off the road to scientifically utopian immortality (“an eternity without passion”). This delivers subtle pleas for tolerance of unsubtle moral differences, that enables redemptive action for bad men and tragic monsters. Penny Dreadful brings together all the classic creatures of the horror genre, re-imagined for our post-Clive Barker era of new Hammer styled hells raised up to the rafters.

As the poisonous fogapocalypse descends (foreshadowing WW1's gas attacks), the heroes arrive in a dying metropolis that swarms with predators. Cauterising bite wounds is only the start of several drastic measures against overwhelming evil. Latecomer to the party, feisty Cat (Perdita Weeks, one of the Bennets from Lost In Austen) is a death-defying asset in the final battle. At a time when horror on TV remains unduly sanitised (The Originals), often bowdlerised into fanciful clichés (Supernatural), or simply modernised by the pointlessly garish (From Dusk Till Dawn), here’s an intelligent gothic period drama serial that never shies away from the impolitely grotesque, the casually brutal, or the knowing humour of its atmospheric scenario. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Warcraft: The Beginning

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Ben Foster, and Dominic Cooper

Director: Duncan Jones

130 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Universal blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Donald Morefield

First, let it be known throughout all 13 realms that I am ignorant of the game-franchise power-source that this fantasy epic is happily adapted from. Since ancient days of yore and lore I have studiously avoided the seemingly addictive perils of RPGs in general, and the sprawling WOW milieu in particular, whether the appeal of the game is battle-honed adventure or empire-building challenge.

A cute newborn orc helps to establish the various family values and tribal loyalties that are at the heart of Warcraft: The Beginning. In a place called Ironforge, our hero gets his first boom-stick. In Stormwind, the kingdom’s guardian wizard preps for conflict with the apparent invasion of giants coming through an otherworldly gateway. A young mage is the entry-level POV chap for initiates. He rubbernecks in awestruck wonder at every building and library stack, but is later stuck with anachronistic lines like “I got this.”

Perhaps one too many TV actors, like Travis Fimmel (Vikings) and Ruth Negga (Agents Of SHIELD), spoilt the casting choices at the front-end of this drama’s exhilarating remix of Tolkien tropes, but Paula Patton is good in a somewhat thankless role as a green-skinned and tusked heroine. The mood and the mould is broken to include WWF superstar styling re-branded as brusquely combative berserkers in smack-down tradition, without any tag-teams for the bloodthirsty horde. With griffin and golem appearances, alongside knights and elves abounding, even the imagistic and thematic riffs upon Moses and Goliath don’t seem too jarring or out of place here. Killing off the hero’s son ignites a revenge plot but it leads nowhere.

As blankly poker-faced as any movie with a monster named 'Doomhammer' could possibly be, without self-combusting from its own deadpan mirth, this succeeds as a neo-classical post-LOTR opus on its own terms. Totally corny, unreservedly high camp, and completely bonkers Warcraft may be but this is, nevertheless, extraordinarily good fun that manages to attain its own comicbookish veracity and purpose. Stunning image quality on the Blu-ray edition ensures the hulking orcs are fully convincing as CG characters and not simply genre creatures.