Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Last Year In Marienbad

Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, and Sacha Pitoeff

Director: Alain Resnais

93 minutes (U) 1961
Studio Canal
Vintage World Cinema
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by J.C. Hartley  

Reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), about a month ago, with its unreliably-narrated account of annual adulterous goings-on at a German spa, I found myself recalling Alain Resnais’ enigmatic Last Year In Marienbad (aka: Last Year At Marienbad), and now, with a nice sense of synchronicity, here is a restored version of that film popping up on DVD and Blu-ray. I haven’t seen this film for about 25 years, when I caught it on terrestrial TV sometime in the 1980s and, fittingly, given one of its many subtexts being the unreliability of memory, it isn’t how I remembered it. The epitome of enigmatic, this film might be said to have put the ‘vague’ in the nouvelle vague, and yes, I’m sure I’m not the first to make that terrible joke.

The plot, such as it is, consists of the meeting at a baroque hotel of an unnamed man, played by the Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi, with a woman, Delphine Seyrig, and his efforts to remind of her of an earlier assignation, possibly occurring the previous year at a spa such as Marienbad. In the screenplay, and presumably just for convenience, the man is referred to as ‘X’, the woman as ‘A’, and a second man who may be the woman’s husband, as played by the cadaverous Sacha Pitoeff, is referred to as ‘M’. The two main protagonists meet, as if by arrangement, in various settings within the house and grounds, and play out repetitive scenarios, the man recalling past events which the woman either cannot or will not remember. 


Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in collaboration with the director, the film is acclaimed as a cinematic expression of techniques driving the nouveau roman, or new novel, in the French literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. This movement favoured the abandonment of formal literary tropes such as plot, characterisation, and linear progression in narrative, in favour of something more closely resembling lived experience. In fact, there is nothing in the philosophy of the nouveau roman that hadn’t been addressed in the literary modernism of the first three decades of the 20th century, hence the shared atmosphere suggested during my reading of Ford’s The Good Soldier. 

Unreliable narration, fractured chronology, stream of consciousness, an attempt to replicate the actual way in which human beings experience and process the world around them, marks both modernist literature of the early 20th century and this later manifestation, and it seems inevitable that the dream-like medium of cinema should attempt to replicate that. As it was, Last Year In Marienbad was seen as ground-breaking and controversial, hailed as a masterpiece, or condemned as the height of intellectual pretentiousness. In any event it has proved massively influential. 


Beginning with a prologue in which Albertazzi’s voice is heard intoning the repetitive experience of navigating the corridors of the hotel in which the action, or indeed inaction, of the film is to take place, the camera follows suit, gliding down carpeted halls and passages, and examining the intricate decoration on cornices and ceilings. Anyone who has seen Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), will get a jolt of recognition from traversing those corridors, similarly the attention the camera pays to the baroque embellishments in the palatial rooms anticipates the papal sequences in Fellini’s Roma (1972). For all its innovation Marienbad hardly exists in a vacuum and the film hints at its own influences. The year after the film’s release Francois Truffaut met with Alfred Hitchcock, reinforcing the admiration the directors of the nouvelle vague held for Hollywood’s genre output. Alain Robbe-Grillet, we are told, would have liked Kim Novak for the female lead in Marienbad.


Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) may seem an unlikely influence on Marienbad but both films deal with repressed memory, psychological obsession, time as a loop rather than an arrow, and in both the motivation of the male leads has a sinister undercurrent.  Hitchcock and Robbe-Grillet shared an interest in the sexual politics of domination. Just as James Stewart’s Scottie bullies Kim Novak’s Judy, X attempts to impose his version of past events on A, who urges him to leave her alone even as she seems to respond to him. Chris Marker uses clips from Vertigo in his documentary Sans Soleil (1983), which also meditates on the unreliability of human memory. James Stewart’s tailing of Kim Novak’s car through the streets of San Francisco in Vertigo is not so different to Albertazzi’s stalking of Seyrig through the hotel corridors in Marienbad. Interestingly, Luc Lagier in Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad (2009), as part of a distinct but equally convincing selection of interpretive readings of Marienbad, suggests another Hitchcock film as a prime influence, namely North By Northwest (1959).

It is assumed the setting for the film is a hotel, it could as easily be a country house, or an exclusive clinic, at one point the man M reminds A that she is here to rest. The guests seem to be permanently attired in evening dress, although in the presumed flashbacks to the man and woman’s original encounter slightly less formal wear is on display.  Entertainment is provided, a play, and a concert, the guests play cards, dance in a darkened salon or drink in a dimly lit bar. At first it seems as if the ensemble may be there to represent some form of allegorical commentary on class or society, like the inmates of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). The play the guests watch is ‘Rosmer’, which may be a version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (1886), in which personal relationships are played out against a background of political and social change.


The guests are often shown immobile, or engaged in fatuous small-talk, or else recalling past events, a male guest visiting a woman guest’s room, someone breaking the heel of their shoe, events which are later shown to be episodes in the relationship which X insists he had with A. There is no suggestion of an outside world, nor is it possible to place the events or characters in a particular era, evening dress being particularly timeless. In the grounds of the hotel the guests strike poses like figures by Magritte in a setting by Paul Delvaux, the formal garden setting a clear influence on Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). 

Eventually, the film reaches a sort of crisis, X recounts the events leading up to his previous intimacy with A, and although this is not shown there is a strong suggestion he has raped her. In a scene in the bar, A appears to have a flash of recognition, as if a buried traumatic memory has suddenly surfaced. Nothing of course can be taken for granted and the couple are eventually shown leaving together, although the unspoken distance between them appears unresolved.


No plot summary or teasing out of themes can quite capture the experience of watching this film. In fact, as is suggested in one of the little films comprising the extras package, Marienbad should just be experienced without worrying-away at meaning. Formal, theatrical, allusive, elusive, repetitive, it reinforces the dream-like quality so often ascribed to cinema, a quality usually sacrificed on the altar of plot-development. Intentionally frustrating as attempts at interpretation might be, the film represents total cinema without a wasted shot or line of dialogue, where the sets and costumes are as integral as the script, and with a score, by Seyrig’s brother Francis, that can be as ominous as that of a thriller or as romantically playful as something penned by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

As befits this re-issue there is an impressive line-up of extras. ‘The Wanderers Of Imagination’ examines the collaboration between the director and writer and how they came to create the film, and includes analysis from actress Anna Mouglalis, and Robbe-Grillet’s widow Catherine. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau then looks at the history of the film and its reception. There are two documentary films made by Resnais, Le Chant du Styrene (aka: The Song Of The Styrene, 1959), a publicity short about plastic production with a poetic narration penned by Raymond Queneau, and Toute la memoire du monde (aka: All The Memory Of The World, 1957), about the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.


The former film finds beautiful images in industrial production lines, and the latter is full of the graceful corridor glides that haunt Marienbad. ‘In The Labyrinth Of Marienbad’, is Luc Lagier’s superb deconstruction of the film, which is seemingly about to offer a single explanation but then goes on to provide a plethora of equally valid interpretations. There is a documentary on Alain Robbe-Grillet in which he comes across as a humorous and engaging interviewee, with comprehensible theories on literature less gnomic than some of his pronouncements from earlier in his career. The extras also include a restored trailer.

A final personal note on the rating for this film, as masterpieces and milestones of cinema would normally merit a 10/10. I’m not questioning the film’s status with my parsimonious 9/10, I just find it a little chilly and introspective compared with some other French movies of the period.


Friday, 17 August 2018

Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Director: Brad Peyton  

108 minutes (12) 2018
Warner Blu-ray region B  
[Released 20th August]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

An epic yet briskly paced monster-movie, Rampage is based on a video game. It starts with Marley Shelton playing a scientist on an orbital station where she fights a giant rat. That confrontation in space doesn’t end well. The source of mutation falls down to Earth, and infects three animals that grow to enormous sizes, threatening chaos or destruction in a wave of menace across America.  


Dwayne Johnson (San Andreas) stars as Davis Okoye, a primate expert from San Diego zoo, where he’s a handler for tame gorilla George, an albino that knows sign language but kills grizzly bears when infected by a weaponised pathogen from the space station. Naomie Harris (Moneypenny in recent James Bond movies) portrays the geneticist Kate Caldwell, a doctor who sketches out this movie’s sci-fi back-story about the potential dangers of genetic editing by CRISPR tech, just before the enraged and rapidly growing George escapes from captivity. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) plays cowboy styled secret agent Harvey Russell, a government spook on the trail of rampaging George.  

The albino gorilla George provides Rampage with subgenre links to Mighty Joe Young and King Kong. Ralph the giant grey wolf from Wyoming forests appears here with tacit links to Norse mythology’s Fenrir, the alias of Fenris in Thor: Ragnarok, while - alongside the movie’s numerous helicopter stunts - the special effects for Ralph also provide a couple of visual puns about Airwolf. Lizzie, the gigantic mutant crocodile emerging from Florida swamp-lands, is a fantastical representative of dinosaurs, and it also recalls Godzilla’s city-stomping antics. These varied influences add up to a magnificent creature-feature, packed with amusing effects and spectacle.    


Due to a radio signal that lures the giant beasts, in a deranged plan hatched by biotech corp villainess Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman, Watchmen) of Energyne, Willis Tower in Chicago becomes the ultimate focus of mayhem by the monsters. Okoye is an ex-special forces commando (of course), so when he teams up with the big ape to fight the other two giant monsters, this can easily be viewed as an off-beat superhero movie (Caldwell mentions Justice League), and seems aligned to comicbook related cinema in general, despite its video game source. George is not unlike a super-hairy version of the Hulk. The gorilla is an over-sized rage monster, a result of experimental evolutionary science gone awry. George battles mutant animals (Ang Lee’s Hulk fought a trio of dogs), and during the ape’s primal rampage, he wrecks tanks and helicopters (just like the Hulk), after which the calmer gorilla becomes the movie’s hero to save a city.


Rampage boasts great action sequences, leavened by good humour, and urban tragedy in Chicago is rebalanced with a happy ending. This movie is a hugely entertaining treat for any fans of Kong: Skull Island, Pacific Rim, and various Marvel and DC productions.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Tideland

Cast: Jodelle Ferland, Janet McTeer, and Jeff Bridges

Director: Terry Gilliam  

120 minutes (15) 2005
Arrow Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

“This is not a vacation.” Contentious and controversial fantasy comedy-drama, Tideland is set in rural Texas, with a southern gothic atmosphere that was shot in Canada without irony. Noah (Jeff Bridges) is a melancholic redneck junkie, and a completely tragic wreck of humanity, redeemed only by the briskly romanticised fairytale views of his precocious and amusingly melodramatic young daughter Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland). Orphaned by the sudden deaths of her parents Jeliza-Rose happily escapes from her grim reality into a wild-child’s shattered and morbidly challenging dreamscape, where even a passing train is likened to a monster shark, and quarrying explosions on an open mining site marks an apocalyptic wasteland edge of the known world.


Before she’s lost down a revisionist Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-hole of jagged memories and allusive imagination, the lonely little girl depends upon her Barbie heads for spooky companionship, but slowly descends into a waking state of broken filmic taboos and her sundry whitewashed nightmares. Eventually, she falls in with the disturbingly eccentric neighbours, brain-damaged Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), and his formidably demented sister Dell (Janet McTeer), a “keeper of the silent souls” via her taxidermy hobby.


Terry Gilliam directs with a keen eye for painterly visuals, rich in colour, artistic textures, and menacing images, and this emerges from the joylessly designer immaturity of its critically lambasted cultural chrysalis as an engagingly distorted version of Tobe Hooper’s seminal black-comedy horror The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), one that’s deeply innocent of grisly mortality and rustic human devils, and thoroughly unsuitable for any closed-minded movie-watcher. Barely restrained madness appears to be Gilliam’s default sensibility for cinematic adventures, and that bursts to the forefront of this disconcerting wallow in child-like views of adult-world mysteries.


Much of Tideland concerns various attempts to get away from human death and its many grisly and testing consequences. The mother’s body is abandoned by family and denied a Viking funeral pyre of her death-bed. The father is vicariously resurrected by taxidermist Dell. Jeliza-Rose appears somewhat bemused by her unburied parents’ stillness as wholly phantasmic presences. The bodiless dolls (voiced by Ferland as parts of her performance of Jeliza-Rose’s fantasy world) attest to the little girl’s disquieting views of life, and what constitutes normality, where “squirrel butts don’t glow,” or its opposite, when a wrecked school bus, dumped close to the railway tracks, seems more comforting in its rusty decay than a place that might otherwise (in a genre drama) be duly haunted by ghostly children.


Despite adverse critical reactions to Tideland, it has recently emerged as one of Gilliam’s best movies, and one of his most emotionally involving and cult-worthy efforts. 

Disc extras:
  • Gilliam’s heartfelt intro, and director's commentary track
  • The 2005 documentary Getting Gilliam (45 minutes) by Vincenzo Natali
  • Making-of, and technical, featurettes
  • Deleted scenes, interviews, picture gallery

Monday, 13 August 2018

A Quiet Place

Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, and Millicent Simmonds    

Director: John Krasinski

90 minutes (15) 2018
Paramount 4K Ultra HD

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Sometimes, genre cinema delivers novelty pictures. Sometimes, taking your work home with you is a very good thing. Seemingly designed for the deaf, this movie posits a dark future where aliens hunt by sound, much like Wyndham’s Triffids before them. However, the deadly monsters visualised for A Quiet Place are not plodding big plants but super-fast predators that stalk a rural landscape, and pounce on every squeak or tinkle. When fireworks explode, the monsters come running like they’ve heard a dinner bell.

Emily Blunt stars as pregnant Evelyn, whose family must live and scavenge in complete silence to survive, with problems of communication, not unlike those previously seen in Buffy The Vampire Slayer celebrated episode Hush (1999). Director John Krasinski, who is married to Blunt, plays Evelyn’s husband, Lee. Their headstrong young daughter Regan (deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck) is the most rational and yet pessimistic character, and she provokes a crisis after leaving her mother all alone without help when the baby’s due soon. Regan wears a cochlear implant, and this device proves to be vital to discovering the creatures’ weakness and quickly field-testing an improvised solution to killing them.


Although a few elements of this hit sci-fi horror movie seem rather contrived - especially the dangerous nail on a staircase, and the premature birth scene - A Quiet Place does fit very neatly into the vaguely surreal cross-genre mode of post-apocalypse nightmare movies, exemplified by Day Of The Triffids, while Ridley Scott’s Alien is another obvious influence. 


As a movie without much dialogue, the use of sounds and complete silence is often quite inspired here, despite the reliance upon sign language (that once common trope of soap operas, usually to somewhat maudlin effect), and the Abbot family living in a crucible of terror is held together not by scientific knowledge, or very much practical ingenuity, but formed into a survivalist unit by simple-minded religious beliefs.


Thankfully, this is not a (mostly) silent movie in the utterly pretentious sense of Oscar-winning B&W production The Artist (2011), or the Spanish version of Snow White (aka: Blancanieves, 2012). The mystery of a wholly personalised sci-fi, and its farm setting, in A Quiet Place often seems reminiscent of Signs (2002), and Krasinski’s direction mirrors the cryptic tone of Shyamalan’s work in general.


Risk assessments, diversionary tactics, grief-stricken responses to a horrifying tragedy. All of these genre-related tensions build up to a stunning hold-your-breath climax where red lights mean danger close, and the alien threat invades the family home. An excellent job of casting young actors to play energetic roles, where they actually save each other, in truly heroic fashion, without reliance upon their parents, bolters this movie’s appeal to a varied audience, and the kids never succumb to Disneyfied schmaltz and juvenile adventuring.


More importantly, here’s a movie that challenges the familiar Hollywood orthodoxy that a pregnancy can hamper female beauty. A Quiet Place presents Evelyn’s motherhood as an attractive trait, without being blatantly sexy, and thanks to the headlining performance by an already accomplished actress, she’s just extraordinary as the climactic action heroine, too, while still maintaining her motherly characterisation. That’s certainly Blunt force trauma for aliens, indeed.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Steven Spielberg

138 minutes (12) 2018
Warner Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton   

Almost anything goes in this prime example of blockbuster fan-fiction that’s an effective play-list medley of pop culture favourites, especially movies. For its details, Ready Player One gleefully plunders many genre classics, so that the young hero Parzival’s car is from Back To The Future, a T-Rex guest-star is the same dinosaur from director Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, and a magic spell is borrowed word-for-word from John Boorman’s Excalibur. But this is not a movie about movies, it’s about games and a possible futurism for gamer culture.    


Turning the island of Manhattan into a shape-shifting arena, the first big game is a kind of Tron meets Death Race, loaded with so many effects in a multi-level dreamscape that the affects of Inceptionitis and Matrix syndrome soon kick in, to generate dizzying and frequently dazzling appeal (like - hey, remember this?), fully designed to a risk sensory overload of viewers’ memory banks. Everything from Avatar to Zardoz is scavenged for styles and ideas that are remixed, if rarely as well-matched as Sucker Punch, into this freewheeling - oh, so cool it’s terminally cool - scenario that can and often does feel like it’s a vague follow-up, but not a narrative sequel, to Last Action Hero (1993). The twists on familiar stuff are what drive its genre mash-up. Ever wondered what Kubrick’s nightmare-movie The Shining might look like if depicted as an Elm Street derivative? 


Back to the game, and its hero-worshipped creator, we are told there are three keys to be found on the players’ quest. Clues that would annoy or baffle the Riddler are offered, and the supreme Easter egg is a winner-takes-all prize. But Spielberg knows that super-toys never last all summer long. Parzival, the alias of Wade (Tye Sheridan), teams up with elfin heroine Art3mis, alias of Samantha (Olivia Cooke), like hacker heroes staging an eco-rebellion against corporation IOI (101?) boss-man Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), his robotic mercenary I-R0k, and feisty assassin F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen, Killjoys), who isn’t the movie’s final girl, but she does at least deliver this movie’s last punch as a visual punch-line.


Not just a movie inspired by 1980s media, RP1 is also, and primarily, a big-scale production that repeats elements of virtual reality from cyberpunk and then re-introduces its designer VR concept afresh, while still maintaining respect for the various genre touchstones, even those that are being acutely satirised here. The most peculiar thing about RP1 is that its young cast who portray the rebellious ‘High 5’ heroes of 2040s are exploring a futuristic creation that depends largely upon icons from modern history. The kids are playing with their grandparents’ toys. It’s rather amusing that teenager Wade Watts’ favourite movie action hero is Buckaroo Banzai. On a battlefield of inconvenient dangers, assorted subgenre references or genre riffs result in a bout of MechaGodzilla versus the Iron Giant. Also deployed for the Planet Doom finale, there’s a WMD (for the win?) disaster scene when a 'Cataclyst' bomb threatens to end everything of any VR value for all concerned.


If this was about the 1960s, the witty punch of the sci-fi movie would be ‘acid flashbacks’. As RP1 centres on the 1980s, but its tone is flashbacks with some weird twists. Although many parts of the movie lack any hint of true originality, the job of the makers is to rework and recycle the familiar into something re-bootable or reboot-worthy, and that’s achieved with aplomb in the movie’s Oasis virtuality to generate a blitz of purely honest fun (RP1 is definitely a bright city, not another Dark City, and it avoids the blatantly green eco-message of Avatar), whether any specific 1980s icon is actually being spoofed or not. Candidates for ultimate in-jokes appear every few minutes.


However, despite being a polished work of sci-fi media, RP1 begs the nagging question, what’s happened to pop culture to the 2040s? Has the exploitation of the 21st century’s remake industry resulted in utter social stagnation for all home entertainment? Perhaps this anorak movie’s formalised Gen X mentality (rewarding “steampunk, pirates”) means that our current decade’s cultural dystopia will continue unchallenged for the foreseeable future. Ready to break the geeksphere?


Nearly two hours of bonus viewing includes interview clips and behind-the-scenes material, showcasing mo-cap stunts in the Volume room, and live-action on studio sets (where Spielberg chose to shoot on film, not digital), about hi-tech design and special effects. Game over... perhaps only until 'Ready Player Two'?

Friday, 10 August 2018

The Death Of Superman

Voice cast: Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, and Rainn Wilson

Directors: Jake Castorena and Sam Liu

81 minutes (12) 2018
Warner DC Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Donald Morefield

When the monstrous beast from space Doomsday arrives in Metropolis, its evil presence on screen evokes an iconic end-of-an-era story, based upon the four-issue series 1992-3 of comic books. As usual, Lois Lane is central to the Kryptonian son’s narrative on Earth, and real-life celebrity couple Jerry O’Connell and Rebecca Romijn play Clark and Lois, for an astute genre-savvy casting coup that adds spousal comfort and genuine chemistry to their vocal performances in this animated movie. Despite revisiting and revising the plot of previous animated movie, Superman: Doomsday (2007), there's more than enough going on here, with regard to romantic engagement, and philosophical debates about who should know a hero's secret identity to please fans of DC comics and movies, and would like to see other variants.


Playing alongside in-jokes and various references to Superman lore, The Death Of Superman pays affectionate tribute to Superman: The Movie (1978), and borrows some key images and themes of action scenes from Man Of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016), and Wonder Woman (2017). Clark’s adoptive parents Ma & Pa Kent, necessary as a soap-opera sub-plot to re-create the heroic orphan’s back-story afresh, seem influenced more by TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman (1993-7), rather than Smallville (2001-11), or any of the recent big-screen outings. 


The Justice League attempt to confront Doomsday before Superman, and although Green Lantern (voiced by Nathan Fillion), and Batman (Jason O’Mara) deliver their best efforts, only Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson) has the strength and power to manage a fight scene that does much more than simply get the monster’s attention. Eventually, it’s a mega-brawl when a punch-up sequence escalates and intensifies to become a brutish battle, the ultimate mano a mano. There’s a smart plot-twist when Lex Luther attempts to save the besieged city and, by extension, the world, using a hi-tech suit of armour (in something vaguely like a ‘Hulkbuster’ style), of his own invention, for the increasingly savage urban combat against Doomsday.


VideoVista’s editor has argued that what superhero cinema depends upon is photo-real animation, so perhaps that’s what cartoon style movies like this example really do need instead of traditional flat 2D artwork. When actual motion within the artwork frame is as basic and limited as character moments are in this movie, the suggestion in favour of a drastic upgrade to a fully CGI (or PRA?) format for digital animation, does seem valid, so, it’s a bit of a shame, and a great missed opportunity. Should DC to adopt a future-proof business model by investing in greater cinematic realism that is, or should be, a welcome and worthwhile advancement for animated movies? 


Also, it’s hard to identify the intended audience for a movie like The Death Of Superman, especially coming after the Doomsday tragedy has been done in a live-action movie directed by Zack Snyder. Since both live-action and cartoon movies have 12 certificates, and the animated version includes scenes of bloody violence, there’s no direct appeal to younger viewers, and only the niche ‘anime’ market remains.


Animated sequel Reign Of The Supermen (2019) will continue this epic story-arc, and that follow-up movie is promoted with a featurette in this Blu-ray discs extras.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

211

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sophie Skelton, and Michael Rainey Jr.

Director: York Shackleton

87 minutes (15) 2018
Lions Gate DVD Region 2
[Released 23rd July]

Rating: 6/10
Review by Donald Morefield

Nicolas Cage is churning out a variety of new movies, lately. Last year, he starred in futuristic actioner The Humanity Bureau, Brian Taylor’s black-comedy horror Mom And Dad, psycho-nanny thriller Inconceivable, crime drama Vengeance: A Love Story, and he also portrayed a violent mobster in kidnapping-crisis movie Arsenal. This year’s 211 (American police code ‘two-eleven’ means a robbery) follows Tim Hunter’s murder mystery Looking Glass, and precedes weird religious-cult horror Mandy, and a forthcoming supernatural drama titled Between Worlds. Thankfully, the actor’s almost frantically busy schedule does not undermine his creative outpourings, or the intriguing appeal of the various finished projects.


Although it’s set in a fictional US town, this movie production was actually filmed in Bulgaria. Its European location shoot is readily apparent in the background details of several scenes, but this quite forgivable error in no way detracts from the picture’s entertainment values, or the purported American setting for its drama, that’s based upon a true story.


Character introductions for Mike Chandler (Nicolas Cage), his partner in the cops’ patrol car, and the criminal motivations of the crooked commando team, are played out briskly with a tight hold on the reins for sketches written, and designed, in a workman fashion, beginning with a raid in Afghanistan. The main US action is slickly choreographed and precisely directed for maximum dramatic impact, so the movie, as a whole, overcomes the familiarity of its scenario and rather stereotyped characters, such as the troubled black student stuck in the back of a police vehicle for a ride-along at exactly the wrong time for him to be there.


Interpol agent Rossi (glamorous Alexandra Dinu) leads the criminal investigation, while local cops deal with bank robbers turned siege terrorists, when the first gunfight escalates into a protracted series of battles that continue even after a SWAT team belatedly reaches the crime scene. This action movie’s obviously generic themes are undistinguished by Cage’s star presence, except for one scene where he's roused to rage for an outburst of complaints aimed at the SWAT commander. Here, is a momentary glimpse of Cage in the kind of role-play that has made him a force to watch in screen drama, whether it’s an action movie or not.


There’s a family tragedy for the hero to overcome but a happy ending for most of those main characters closely involved in the crime scene, except for the villains, of course. The California-born director’s previous movies include Kush (2007), and Pretty Perfect (2014), plus a few documentaries, and a measure of documentary style realism informs the principal action of this crime drama.


211 trailer... 


Friday, 13 July 2018

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, and Walton Goggins

Director: Roar Uthaug

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

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Genesis

Cast: Olivia Grant, Chike Okonkwo, and John Hannah

Directors: Freddie Hutton-Mills and Bart Ruspoli

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

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton

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


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


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


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