Saturday, 28 October 2017

Zabriskie Point

Cast: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, Paul Fix, and Kathleen Cleaver

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

120 minutes (15) 1970
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When it gets down to it, you have to choose one side or the other,” says Mark.
“There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains,” counters Daria.
And that’s the dilemma Zabriskie Point poses. There’s restless dissatisfaction, streams of unease, wired strung-out times, something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you…? In the jargon of the time, be part of the problem, or be part of the cure. The soundtrack splices Pink Floyd with sampled media news-blurts. ‘Bullshit and jive’ Black Power agitators harangue a counter-culture student debate, exploiting white liberal guilt, “you keep getting busted for grass and that makes you a revolutionary.”

First time I caught this on the small-screen, it’s on a German-language DVD, adding an extra level of dislocation. A radical Angela Davis lookalike, who is actually Kathleen Cleaver – partner of Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver, sits immaculately aloof and argues articulately as they rant back-and-forth dialectic about Molotov cocktails, guerrilla confrontation, conspiring strike action to shut down the campus. “If the man’s language is the gun, talk to him with a gun.” It’s all done hidden-camera, documentary-style. What else can a poor boy do…? Mark calls their bluff, stands up and stalks out. Yes, he’s “willing to die, but not of boredom…”

Driving a dirty red pick-up truck past lurid sequences of street-scene hoardings, the real and the garish exhortation images fold in together, ‘federally inspected meats’ against startles of electronic music, proto-industrial machine-sounds, until it all blurs into flashing hidden-persuader shapes. There are ‘Sunny Dunes Development Co’ ad-clips with idealised plastic Barbie-people. “Forge a life of your own, like the pioneers who moulded the west,” with antiseptic hygienic modern-appliance ‘Sunny Dunes’ kitchens for moms. There’s soft-core muzak (Don’t Blame Me), a huge costing-office cactus and an American flag furling in the breeze outside the wall-window. A pop art collage of commercials, American Airlines, a huge wristwatch straddles the freeway. Freeze any frame and it’s a gallery-print. Jasper Johns or Warhol. A cut-up of radio-bursts, Vietnam news and student arrests. It’s the voice-over commentary that links one scene into the next.

Students picket with placards. Mark is tired of kids rapping about violence, and cops doing it, but he won’t commit. Police lock-up detained students, he’s hauled in for talking back. Sneerily gives his name as ‘Karl Marx’. “How do you spell it?” demands the cop deadpan, typing in ‘Marx, Carl’. Is it coincidence that Allen Ginsberg is ‘Carlo Marx’ in Kerouac’s Beat-generation mythology?

They buy guns in a store piled high with racks of artillery. The salesman is easily persuaded to waive the four-five days security check. He advises that “the law says you can protect your house. So if you shoot him in the backyard, be sure to drag him inside.” Mark conceals the handgun in his boot, shrugging his jeans down over it. Back at the campus riot, state troopers with visors-down, riot shields, and gas masks, beat students with night-sticks. Demonstrators line the block’s flat roof, hustled away in bloody bandages as siren howl. A cop lobs a tear-gas grenade into the occupied block, and a black student is shot as he emerges. Could that happen? It did, at the Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio, even as the movie was circulating…

Mark is about to draw his boot-pistol, but the cop responsible is shot down before he has chance to do it himself. Instead, he runs in confusion. Catches a coach out – seen in green. Later, he calls back from a store payphone. His roommate says he’s been caught on TV running away in a suspicious manner…

Mark watches a small plane fly over between ad-hoardings of happy smiling consumers. He strolls casually onto the Bates Aviation Inc strip, jacket slung over his shoulder. No particular place to go. Turbine sounds. The cockpit door of the small Cessna 210 ‘Lilly Seven’ is ajar, no-one’s watching. Why not? He bluffs a curious mechanic. Control Tower query-calls as he lifts off, up over parking lots, the houses of the Hawthorne suburbs in grid-straight line, over the highway interchange – higher than the rolling L.A. smog. Squint your eyes, Mark looks not unlike Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. ‘Mark’ is Mark Frechette, just as ‘Daria’ is Daria Halprin. They are real. They are not contrived.

Michelangelo Antonioni had filmed Blow-Up (1966), which most perfectly captures the pulse of 1960s’ London, and one of my favourite movies of all time. On an upward curve he relocates to California to catch the burgeoning underground insurgence happening there. Finding it more volatile, fractured with political and racial violence. The untried Mark and Daria are deliberately chosen reality-style. They’re not actors, they just look right. Representative. They have the street-itch of the moment. Although that means they lack the mesmerising screen charisma of David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the earlier film. Rod Taylor, as smoothly manipulative ‘Sunny Dunes’ bread-head ‘Lee Allen’ has the screen track-record (including the time-traveller in George Pal’s The Time Machine, 1960), but is under-used. It’s the casual, yet intense interaction between Mark and Daria that defines the narrative contour. On which it rises, or sometimes fails.

Once described as a ‘post-religious Marxist and existentialist intellectual’ Antonioni’s Italian films had already gone through a number of decisive phases before his influential L’avventura (1960), an art-house thriller without a formal resolution, was both booed and acclaimed. A prescient offbeat Marxist view of an emerging Italy, it helped him create a post-neorealist Italian cinema that first shocked Cannes, then brought him enduring international renown. It’s also the first of four seminal movies starring his lover and muse, the cool, morally challenging Monica Vitti, who plays a lower-middle-class girl on a Mediterranean yachting holiday with rich friends. The complex La Notte (1961), an erotic study of alienation, won immediate critical and public favour, placing Marcello Mastroianni opposite Jeanne Moreau as disillusioned novelist and embittered wife.

Those four major Italian films, all deal with loss, emptiness, despair and spiritual desolation. Until Antonioni felt the theme was exhausted and had, in turn, exhausted him. David Hemmings also believed that the director had a desire to be recognised internationally “the way Fellini was by this time, and that’s why he made the film outside Italy” (to Alexander Walker in Hollywood, England, Michael Joseph, 1974).

While in the States promoting Blow-Up, Antonioni noted a brief press feature about a young man shot to death after taking a joyride in a stolen aircraft. It proved a useful plot-thread hook, spun out into a rough screenplay. It’s enough. He sketched out ideas. Brought in playwright Sam Shepard for additional input – he’d been drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders and would be a future Patti Smith amore. Then previous collaborator Franco Rossetti, plus screenwriters Clare Peploe, and Tonino Guerra from Blow-Up. Intended as a major shot for the US counter-culture market, Rolling Stone (#28, 1 March 1969) trailers a cover-splash ‘Michelangelo Antonioni: An Interview And A Preview Of Zabriskie Point’, setting up expectations, which are not always exactly realised. Whereas Blow-Up uses original music by Herbie Hancock, as well as the incandescent Yardbirds live sequence, Zabriskie Point opts for the Easy Rider jukebox approach, producing a soundtrack album strongly featuring Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and Kaleidoscope, plus Americana-style tracks from John Fahey (Dance Of Death), Grateful Dead (Dark Star), old-timey Appalachian banjo-player Roscoe Holcomb (I Wish I Were A Single Girl Again) and the 1950s country-pop ‘Singing Rage’ Patti Page (Tennessee Waltz).

While Daria cruises the bright Desert Highway, out through the dunes in a 1950s Buick with white-wall tyres, eating a rosy-red apple. ‘You Are What You Eat. Try Our Salads. Save With Desert Springs Savings & Loans’ framed as a photo. She calls Lee Allen from a roadside bar, faulty neon burning. Their relationship is unspecified, employer and/ or lover? She says that while she’s heading for Phoenix she’s also looking out for “a fantastic place for meditation – Glenville or Valleyville?” A do-gooder James Pattison has been bringing ‘emotionally sick’ kids from L.A. Patti Page is on the jukebox. The bar has a plastic cow on the roof. Telegraph poles space the desert in receding rows. A rusting upturned auto-wreck is used as a bolthole by feral kids. The kids taunt and harass her, demanding “a piece of ass.” At first she jives “are you sure you’d know what to do with it?”, until she’s forced to escape their increasingly intrusive attentions.

And he’s flying over vast desert emptiness, his shadow a racing cross. He buzzes Daria as she stops to top up her radiator. Then chases her, flying low, then approaching head-on. The Youngbloods’ Sugar Babe (a Jesse Colin Young song from their Earth Music album, RCA, 1967) plays as she drives. She gets out and lies face-down in the sand. When he drops an orange T-shirt, she runs and catches it. He sets down beside the road. Drawn to each other by a planet-like gravitational pull, they meet. She’d heard on the radio about the stolen plane. “I needed to get off the ground,” he explains simply. She gives him a lift to buy gas for the grounded aircraft. They pause at the Zabriskie Point viewpoint overlooking a lakebed deposited ten-million years ago. Reading from the plaque she queries “…borates and gypsum?” “Two old prospectors who lost their way,” he jokes. Why did he quit college, she probes. “Extracurricular activities. Stealing hardcover books instead of paperbacks. Making phone-calls on chancellor’s stolen credit card number. Whistling in class. And bringing illegal things onto campus…”

She smokes a joint. He’s on “a reality trip,” and doesn’t turn on. She proposes they play the ‘death-game’. “I wonder what else is going on in the real world?” he muses. They hold hands, play and romp groovy stuff across the lunar landscape. Kiss. The razored dialogue runs on minimalist possibilities, free, no commitment. Don’t think twice, it’s alright. “Would you like to go with me?” asks Mark. “Where?” she says. “Wherever I’m going.” “Are you really asking?” “Is that your real answer?”

Into the first of the movie’s stunning awesome iconic sequences. He unfastens the buttons down the front of her short green dress. Her blue stone pendant. Figures naked in the sand, hazy in blowing dust. Not just two of them now, but multiple entwined couples, erotic, primal, multi-gendered copulating triads in oral orgy sex, group-grope, limbs in dusty entanglement. As though the arid landscape, dry riverbed, primeval earth has become animated, breathing out dust-figures. Does it have a literal meaning? Archetypal man-woman, multiple eternal lovers. The origins of the world. The end of the world. Or just a visually ravishing image? In the real-time world, the figures were members of the experimental Open Theatre Of Joseph Chaikin. A scene subsequently investigated to determine whether it violates the ‘Mann Act’, but as no actual penetrative sex takes place, and the participants had not crossed State lines, potential charges were dropped. “I always knew it would be like this,” he says. “Love?” she asks. No, ‘the desert.’ A stickered camper-van family find their abandoned car.

Then Mark hides behind the red porta-gents as a highway patrolman pauses. He draws his boot-gun. For the second time in the movie, he takes aim at a cop, as the patrolman talks to Daria. For the second time he fails to pull the trigger, the cop drives off. She asks him obliquely. “The guy who killed the cop?” He admits “No. I wanted to. But somebody else was there.” Random chance rather than lack of commitment.

They paint the plane in fantastical designs, assisted by an old garage-hand. ‘A strange prehistorical bird spotted over the Mohave Desert.’ Freecome. She He It. No War. Breasts daubed on the wings. He intends taking the plane back after this joyride, despite her persuasion about him perhaps cutting his hair and them driving to Phoenix together. He’s like Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), who steals cars, joyrides them, then takes them back.

She waves as he takes off. Don’t look back. Then she drives on, listening to radio-reports about the plane-theft, as the Rolling Stones play. Keith sings You Got The Silver off their Let It Bleed (December 1969) album, the group’s final track to feature Brian Jones. Cops, a news-copter, and press photographers, await his arrival at the airstrip. As he touches down, police cars circle the plane and pen him in. One nervous cop shoots. Mark is hit. She listens on the car radio amid tall cactus. An apparent hijacking attempt ends in a youth shot dead. She drives on to the desert spa resort where Lee is negotiating land-purchase options. Wind chimes tinkle. Water cascades, washing her tears.

She drives away, rejecting the world, the life and the materialistic values that Lee offers. A worn and stained National Geographic blows in the breeze. A cigarette burns in the ash-tray. The calm, rising into the movie’s second stunning awesome iconic sequence.
She fondles the T-shirt Mark parachuted down to her. Images of explosions smash inside her head. She stands watching it. Multiple explosions in mushroom clouds of debris, again and again, over and over, vivid gouges of lurid flame, storming hails of glass and consumer commodity. A TV detonates, in a flick-flick-flick trip-repetition. A fridge erupts in a shrapnel of cans, K-cornflakes, Wonder-Bread, a naked oven-ready chicken hurls through stunned air. An endless slow-motion auto-destruction art-dance of fragmentation choreographed to Pink Floyd. Shattering images of luxury living and all its accoutrements, a patio table with parasol, a suspended ballet of books and magazines. Sound peaks into piercing screams… It stops abruptly. She smiles. Walks away. Gets into the car and drives. Roy Orbison warbles So Young over the credits.

What does it mean? Does it mean anything in the literal sense? Or just an excuse for eye-raping shock-filmic images. That’s enough. Catching the rootless unconnected dissatisfaction of the times, the anti-materialist anti-capitalist vibe, the vague questing for a better otherness. Life can be what you dream it to be, what you convert it into. Like the trippy light fandango of an acid lyric, it’s essentially meaningless, yet strikes at submerged profundities more sensed than articulated. Realism, and super-realism. A mood of unpredictable change, awakening, resistance. And the lethal backlash. The uncertain kinetic poetry of movement. There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains. Yet you have to choose one side or the other.

If it’s a flawed movie, it’s a flawed masterpiece. His next film – The Passenger (1975), the third of a three-picture deal with Carlo Ponti and MGM, returns to reliable box-office names – Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, and Ian Hendry in an identity-switch action thriller. Before Antonioni returns to making films centred more on the Italian market.

In a weird twist Mark and Daria’s real-life romantic entanglement saw them living together in the cult-like Boston ‘Fort Hill Community’ hippie commune. Afterwards, she was briefly married to Dennis Hopper, while Mark is jailed for his part in a 1973 bank robbery – as though he’d finally chosen one side over the other, and died in prison aged just 27. Neither of them appeared in any other films of note.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and Danny Huston

Director: Patty Jenkins

135 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.39:1
Warner DVD Region 2

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

For a moment, while watching this DVD and contemplating doing a review as a gesture of loyalty to the editor of this site, in acknowledgement of many years of collaboration, I thought I might give it a six out of ten rating. A good night’s sleep and the recollection that I gave Man Of Steel (2013) that self-same rating stayed my hand, this is far-and-away a better film than that, and its follow-up Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) in which Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman debuted. The contemplation of a lower rating coincided with the ‘oh-do-get-on-with-it’ dip in concentration that accompanies most films over two hours long, and particularly here during slow-motion scenes of combat, and sequences that seemed vaguely reminiscent of the ‘Cap wins WWII’ montage from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Curiously, Wonder Woman has stuck in my head as a very ‘talkie’ picture, despite its regular scenes of carnage, possibly no one stops gabbing even when they’re rough-housing. James Cameron caused a brief ripple in the blathersphere by suggesting that sticking Gadot in an armoured bustier does nothing to stall the on-screen objectification of women, even though he liked the film. Someone somewhere neatly observed that a woman’s not a real woman in Cameron’s eyes unless she’s sporting bed-hair, a torn T-shirt, and a massive weapon, or possibly is rendered in blue pixels. Check your privilege Jim! Gadot is dressed more demurely than Linda Carter ever was in TV’s Wonder Woman (1975-9). 

Creator of the comic-book Wonder Woman in 1941, William Moulton Marston, had a complicated but refreshingly liberated private life that fed into the themes of his Amazonian Princess. His research into systolic blood pressure inspired by his wife Elizabeth helped lead to the development of the lie-detecting polygraph, Wonder Woman of course had her ‘lasso of truth’. He seems to have lived with Elizabeth within a ménages à trois with a former student of his, Olive Byrne, and the trio’s progressive views on gender roles, and an understanding of the psychology of dominance and submission, all played a part in the allegorised storylines he produced for the comic. A belief in the redemptive power of love happily makes its way into the film. Marston has his own bio-pic now, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (2017), directed by Angela Robinson and starring Luke Evans as the eponymous Prof.

The child Diana grows up beloved by all on the all-female island of Themyscira. She longs to be trained in the arts of war by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) forbids it. Hippolyta tells her how conflict in heaven arose after Ares, God of War, perverted mankind and slew the other gods, before being defeated by his father Zeus. Zeus then created the Amazons to protect mankind and provided them with a sword the ‘God-Killer’ should Ares return. Hippolyta eventually concedes that Diana should be trained by Antiope. When an American pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes in the sea off Themyscira, the Amazons learn that a World War is devastating the planet. Trevor is working for British Intelligence and has stolen the plans for a deadly poison gas created by Isabel ‘Dr Poison’ Maru (Elena Anaya), for General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) of the German army. Diana believes it her duty to travel with Trevor to try and end the War which she sees as being Ares’ work. She armours herself, and takes the Lasso of Truth and the God-Killer sword, as well as the protective metal armbands which generate a devastating power when clashed together.

Arriving in London, the pair find the British high command occupied with the terms of the Armistice and unwilling to endorse any mission which would put that at risk. Trevor assembles his own multi-national team, Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and later Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock), and with the unexpected help of Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) one of the Armistice negotiators, they are able to travel to the Front. Diana becomes convinced that Ludendorff is Ares in disguise and determines to kill him to end the War, unfortunately although the General is indeed a warmonger who has murdered the German staff seeking an Armistice, her defeat of him does not end the hostilities.

Having sailed from Themyscira to London, the sexist attitudes Diana encounters are conveniently displayed by the British, “It’s a woman!” The USA joined the conflict in 1917 and obviously American audiences would prefer to think Diana would have met more open-minded attitudes there. OK, they could hardly have crossed the Atlantic in their little boat, and Trevor is working for the Brits. However, no surprise when the urbane and sympathetic Sir Patrick is revealed to be really Ares in disguise. All credit to the script (Zack Snyder and team) for a nice bit of misdirection, Maru supplies Ludendorff with some sort of restorative gas which suggests he might be the war-god in human form, but actually it’s just a super-soldier serum. The role of Sir Patrick/ Ares is a little confused, first he funds the mission to the Front then he insists by telephone that they do nothing to compromise the Armistice, suggesting that Ares is only Sir Patrick some of the time.  Perhaps I’m just getting slow at picking up these subtle nuances.

Anyway, the misdirection works, when Diana kills Ludendorff and the War doesn’t come to a sudden halt one really expects him to shrug off his mortal form and be revealed, the revelation that Ares was Sir Patrick all along, or at least some of the time, was a nice reveal. There are some slight mis-steps in the film, obviously the audience isn’t intended to enquire if this is what Wonder Woman did in WWI, what did she do in WW2? Charlie the sharpshooting Scot can’t shoot as he has PTSD, Sameer would love a career as an actor but he’s the wrong colour, these are honourable observations but devoting 15 seconds to them in a super-hero movie isn’t going to raise consciousness. Perhaps they didn’t want this to be all about gender issues, other prejudice is available. Elsewhere, in terms of spectacle, a gala attended by Ludendorff and Maru, which Diana and Trevor gatecrash, gets a big build-up but is a bit of a damp squib. Diana wants to kill the General, Trevor stops her, and Ludendorff launches a gas attack on the town the team has recently liberated. It’s supposed to be a pivotal moment but plays like padding.

In her own comic, Wonder Woman was trained by Ares who was her ally. The pantheon of mythological gods and goddesses has provided both DC and Marvel with a rich source of characters, variously explained. Aliens, or pan-dimensional beings, or suchlike. This film sensibly doesn’t go into any of that. I’m guessing that Marvel’s upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (2018) will steer clear of original writer Jim Starlin’s cast of Eternals, Celestials, Strangers, Living Tribunals, Lords of Order and Chaos, and Uncle Tom Chronos and all, and all. Here’s hoping. 

Wonder Woman has a nice short framing narrative, Bruce Wayne sends Diana a photo of her and Trevor and the rest of the gang, taken after they had liberated the town from the Germans in 1918. Later, we see the photograph being taken. At the end of the film, Diana, after remembering the events we have just seen, acknowledges her continuing role in protecting mankind through the power of love. There is one extra on the DVD, Patty Jenkins discusses Diana’s revelation of a wider world which, after the First World War, will begin its progress into the modern world we know today. She also identifies some key locations, Australia House as Selfridges, Tilbury as Maru’s poison gas plant and airstrip, and Arundel Castle as the exterior shots of the castle where Ludendorff attends the gala and launches his first gas-attack.

Monday, 23 October 2017


Cast: Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow, Arturo Castro, Christian Navarro, and Jeff Lima

Directors: Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott

94 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Kaleidoscope blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton

In this marginally science fictional movie, for Texas to leave the USA, the rogue state’s militia would attack and invade New York, turning the city into a war zone. The main plot centres on two random strangers forced into defending themselves against overwhelming odds. Cue gunshots in the distance and the war-on-terror imagery of burning towers on a catastrophic skyline.

One of the main trademarks of low-budget movies released on DVD and blu-ray is the complete lack of any subtitle options, as not even English text for viewers with hearing problems are included. That’s the case with this otherwise promising product. Bushwick is an on-the-run actioner comprised of long takes, or an illusion of the same - with many actual cuts disguised by clever editing, in the obvious hope that such documentary styled verisimilitude can add cool veracity to a basically sketchy scenario. This filming technique suggests a rapid narrative but actually slows the pace of storytelling to leisurely stroll, as the mobile camera is required to follow the movie’s stars upstairs, through door-ways to vacant rooms, and jog along down the street after them on set dressed-to-kill locations.

There are familiar battlefield traumas: cauterising wounds, and tending to dying victims, but this quickly becomes a meandering trudge through the humourless clichés of urban apocalypse, with domestic stopovers, hooded soldiers, a mass panic, a helicopter crash, tragedies from stray bullets, and refuge found in a church. Bright lights or smoke screens and murky images from unfocused lenses hide the poverty of this production, despite its modest ambitions. Before the big finale, we get the rather dreary spectacle of ex-wrestler Dave Bautista (Guardians Of The Galaxy) trying to act in his lengthy talking scene, while emoting in character as former US marine corpsman Stupe. Predictably, the wholesome heroine Lucy (Brittany Snow) turns into a gun-toting survivalist.

Bushwick is not a bad effort of its type. It never quite manages to ascend to the electrifying or amusing heights of its genre inspirations, like Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981), or John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984). But there’s just about enough engagement with contemporary issues about gun violence and political dissent to elevate Bushwick’s action-thriller material above the wholly blundering standards of the Italian exploitation flicks made in the 1980s that were clearly influenced by those aforementioned cult classics. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight

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

Director: Michael Bay

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

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Miracle Mile

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

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Untamed

Cast: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, and Jesus Meza

Director: Amat Escalante  

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

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Getting Any?

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

Director: Takeshi Kitano

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

Rating: 8/10
Review by Mike Philbin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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