Monday, 26 February 2018


Cast: Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Laura Vandervoort, and Hannah Emily Anderson

Directors: Michael and Peter Spierig

92 minutes (18) 2017 
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
LionsGate Blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

After seven movies in just seven years, the profitable franchise launched by James Wan’s Saw (2004) continues, seven years later, with this picture that revisits the shock scenario, while trying hard to avoid the series’ usual claustrophobic torture-porn brand, as identified by critics yet disputed by the record-breaking franchise's creators. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why you’re here.”   

Five victims wake up with chained buckets stuck on their heads include blonde-in-fishnets Carly, who soon suffers a gruesome death, and she’s not even the first spectacular mutilation in this dark thriller. A new game of mortal adversity is on, with everything set-up once again to expose and judge the personal histories of those who practice “reckless deceit,” without considering the consequences of their actions.  

Police detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) investigates a very public body-dump site and struggles to solve the mystery, “chasing a dead man,” before a farm-based set of ingenious death traps claim other lives. Are the guilty parties ready to die for their sins? Anna (Laura Vandervoort) seems to be the most likely heroine - or final-girl survivor, at least - but you can take your pick of the available key roles for her to play in this grisly game of twisted terrorism as the most savvy of the repeatedly endangered captives, despite being the first to ask that most clich├ęd question of all in today's horror movies, “why are you doing this to me?!

Hannibal Lecter kills because people are rude. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) prefers to punish all those who are liars. Perhaps, from a moral perspective, rather than a homicidal maniac’s view of society, the obviously villainous Jigsaw appears closer to Marvel comic-book anti-hero the Punisher than the splatter cycle’s infamous serial killer. This feels like a fresh version, rather than another sequel, or a remake. In a plot so full of witty diversions, slickly clever twists, and sundry potential copy-cats, with borrowings, story parallels, and police procedural influences drawn from Seven, and The Usual Suspects (both 1995). “You have a choice. Scream or don’t.”

Although this movie’s physical tests and psychological traumas engage viewers with the suffering  of humanity in an inhumane age, a fairly radical new industrialisation of horror (a media project begun by sci-fi cinema's trope of man-vs-machine back in the 1950s) is apparent, especially in terms of rusty metal contraptions signifying a fittingly automated punishment that mirrors the decayed morals of all those being tormented by Jigsaw. The surrealistic pick of these fatal mechanisms is the spinning ‘spiraliser’, a designer’s tribute to the red spiral mark painted on the ‘Billy’ puppet’s cheeks. Colourful, without becoming too garish in its extremes of black comedy, the luridly macabre Jigsaw is a worthwhile addition to the popular cycle of techno-shock.

Disc extras:
Documentary, I Speak For The Dead: The Legacy Of Jigsaw (82 minutes) is mainly composed of interviews about the making of this movie, rather than anything like a retrospective feature study.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Lair Of The White Worm

Cast:  Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, and Sammi Davis

Wrtiter and director: Ken Russell

93 minutes (18) 1988
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
LionsGate Blu-ray region B
[released 26th February]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Dracula movies having been thoroughly overdone by the late 1980s, Ken Russell turned to a far lesser known book for his decidedly British monster-movie adaptation of Bram Stoker's The Lair Of The White Worm (first published in 1911), based upon the legendary Lambton Worm. Blurring class differences in its oddball characterisations of English landowners and working tenents promotes this frightful farce all the way from its low-brow cliches, of a vaguely sci-fi comedy-horror, to magnificently surrealist flourishes, often burdened with weirdly paganistic rituals and explicit acts of disturbing sexual violence that merrily include religious blasphemy.

Everything from hose-pipes and teapot spouts fill the background scenes with suggestive phallic imagery about a blatantly evil serpent dating back to Roman times. The tastelessly macabre story flits between character viewpoints. Easily the best of these involve predatory vampire Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe, a charming dominatrix attuned to Turkish music), who picks up boy-scouts ("Are you into any sort of banging?"), swans around in kinky boots, and plays a snakes and ladders board-game.

Decades before his regenerative stint for the famous Time Lord in Doctor Who (2013-7), Peter Capaldi appears here as archaeology student Angus, digging up a giant beastly skull on the site of an ancient villa in Derbyshire. Hugh Grant is the obvious hero, an RAF chappie and lord of the manor James D'Ampton who dreams of a Concorde flight with venomous seduction that keenly anticipates the unfolding mystery. However, the movie's actual hero is the Scotsman, who benefits from an open twist-ending perhaps inspired by John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). "The mind boggles," as Russell says in his director's commentary. 

Dick Bush's kitchen-sink cinematography blends with Russell's moodily expressionist styling to archly beguiling effect. Historical exposition during a visit to some local caverns fills in the narrative landscape between myth and truth. Hypnotic visions build up suspense to a climax of bagpipes, delightfully campy and fanged villainy, a human sacrifice (with American beauty Catherine Oxenberg as a virginal victim), and heroic dragon-slaying antics.

Overall, The Lair Of The White Worm remains an immensely watchable treat for fans of low-budget British shockers, partly for the witty mix of humour and horror, but mostly for a batch of high quality pantomine (in the very best sense of that usually derided term) performances by its astonishingly impressive cast in their journey to the edge of the abyss. 

Thursday, 15 February 2018


Cast: Ellen Page, Nina Dobrev, Diego Luna, James Norton, and Kiersey Clemons

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

110 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.39:1
Sony Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Long before Soul Survivors (2001) and the Final Destination (2000-11) franchise, fantasy thriller Flatliners (1990), a notable supernatural horror about death warmed up, bought a rash of mortal fears and weird confrontations with dark forces to an afterlife investigation, and established a subgenre cycle where a mysterious 'something' comes back with flat-line returnees from the next world, to perform a dramatic function as a terminal antagonist in grim reaper mode. “It’s a good day to die.”

Niels Arden Oplev, director of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009), helms this sadly anonymous remake with Kiefer Sutherland, star of the original movie in 1990, portraying a senior doctor in a teaching hospital where four unwary medical students repeat the same risky games against mortality. But, of course, there’s a downside to their flat-line experiences and “side effects may include... existential dread”. Guilty consciences, and the lingering weight of past sins, drive these young doctors to meet their apparently doomed fates. Will even a heartfelt apology and attempts to make amends help ward off attacks by any scary retribution from beyond the grave, or cancel the deadly re-balancing that’s needed for a seemingly demonic payback in individual morality plays?

Although an argument might be made in favour of viewing this genre movie as a feminist revision of the original Flatliners, starring Ellen Page (Super, Inception, Whip It, Juno, X-Men: The Last Stand, Hard Candy, TV sci-fi show ReGenesis), and Nina Dobrev (TV series Vampire Diaries, xXx: Return Of Xander Cage), obviously leading a new cast, the director attempts something that’s both effectively more subtle (this is not a feminist remake like Paul Feig’s recent comedy Ghostbusters), and yet rather less interesting than the original Flatliners.

Here, MRI brain scans replace the original picture’s EKG readings, but just like the 1990’s mystery movie, karma suggests that remorse and atonement might solve any regrettable personality problems. There’s an out-of-body trip, floating through a church, but radically fewer god and religious references in this Flatliners remake where psychic awakening is a priority for academic advantage and professional advancement, without clearly ‘spiritual’ dimensions, despite creepy phantasms haunting the flat-line experiments’ survivors.

The year 1990 when the original Flatliners was made saw a genre stable-mate production in Adrian Lyne’s similarly themed Jacob’s Ladder, also just remade. All of these variations aside, the ultimate movie of this kind of adventure, where science investigates ‘the other side’, has already been made. It was Ken Russell’s masterpiece, Altered States (1980). 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Jared Leto 

Director: Denis Villeneuve

163 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony 4K Ultra HD 

Rating: 9/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

How does a critic begin to review this movie, which is perhaps the most long awaited and eagerly anticipated sequel of all time? The Blade Runner prologues, three short films that bridge a narrative gap of 30 years between the original masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049, is probably the best place to start.

Animated short, 2022: Black Out (15 minutes), reveals an info-dump about intermediate Nexus 8 versions of replicants versus human supremacists, until terrorism by EMP wrecks the Tyrell corporation’s future prospects. This includes Edward James Olmos as the voice of Gaff. The next short of a pair directed by Ridley Scott’s son Luke is 2036: Nexus Dawn (six minutes) offering an introduction for the main event’s visionary villain Wallace (Jared Leto), while 2048: Nowhere To Run (six minutes) most accurately mimics the vivid visual styling of Blade Runner, and delivers a telling prelude for runaway rogue replicant Sapper (Dave Bautista, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Spectre, Bushwick).

As expected, in designs and tones, the ghosts of early 1980s SF, and the original movie’s 2019 setting, haunt this conspiracy crime drama with synth zings in echoes of sound, wet reflections in patterns of light on interior walls mirroring persistent rainfall, origami sheep - courtesy of symbolism wrangler Gaff, and the miracle of birth from “cells interlinked”. A new blade runner KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling) frees his digital girlfriend Joi from the shackles of a domestic overhead projector to appear on an urban roof-top, thanks to an emanator gadget. This new viewpoint about ‘being’ and seeing makes fuzzy reference to a romantic scene in Daredevil (2003), where the blind hero first precisely ‘visualises’ his girlfriend as a perceptual image in the rain. The invisibility of a media broadcast’s turned upside-down via holographic tech. It’s also a wry commentary on the motto that “information wants to be free”.

This re-branding of 21st century futurism emerges from systems overdrawn at the official PKD memory-bank. The sequel movie’s genre riffs of sci-fi novelty in this extreme case of  ecological dystopia extrapolate more from Blade Runner’s alternative Los Angeles of 2019 than from Californian social or political concerns or the actual environmental conditions in today’s reality. And so, this parallel world’s post-cyberpunk milieu permits indulgences as striking in their own imaginary cultural ways, as the neo-noir borrowings of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece.   

Clearly a Pinocchio cypher, K’s dreams of a relationship are just as hollow as his favourite hologram, but his fantasy eventually becomes an electric ghost far beyond the machinery of Joi. “Mere data makes a man. A and C and T and G. The alphabet of you. All from four symbols. I am only two: 1 and 0.” The Wallace corporation took over replicant production after Tyrell’s business model collapsed and company enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) pursues K into conquering his fears of death and humanity. Tech noir intrigue unfolds at a stately pace, wrapped around memory implants with authentic episodes of childhood, from bullying to birthday cake. At the orphanage, where kids labour for commercial gain, K finds evidence that his faked  boyhood might be real, shattering his baseline knowledge of a soul-free selfdom. “What’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love?” 

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s return to SF, after Arrival (2016), delivers its urban scenes of violence with some very loud music to crank up the tensions and chills of psychological disturbance. Often lost in the darkness, this picture’s most vividly colourful sequences are simulations - virtual or augmented realties. Actuality is dreadfully decayed like morality in dystopia, or physically dead, and L.A. pleasure model Mariette (Mackenzie Davis, looking like a sister of Daryl Hannah’s Pris) admits that she has “never seen a tree before.”      

The biggest problem with this sequel is that its SF elements are largely beholden to many of the late-1980s and 1990s movies that were, blatantly, or covertly, influenced by Blade Runner. In addition, a surrogate romance in a qualifying ‘threesome’ is copied from Spike Jonze’s oddly tragicomic Her (2013). The faster pace of Rupert Sanders’ live-action Ghost In The Shell (2017) almost stands still in marked contrast to the leisurely style chosen by Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049. However, genre product satisfaction is almost guaranteed!

The bonus disc has four featurettes: To Be Human, on casting the BR sequel, provides “a special opportunity” for Ryan Gosling, a charismatic Robin Wright, the hulking but aged-by-make-up Dave Bautista, Jared Leto’s blind genius hipster villainy, Cuban actress Ana de Armas, “the best angel” Sylvia Hoeks, Swiss starlet Carla Juri, and others concerned. Fights Of The Future looks at this movie’s premier action sequences. Two Become One focuses upon the love scene. Dressing The Skin reveals the fashion and costume designs. The total running-time for all these extras is 34 minutes.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wolf Warrior II

Cast: Jing Wu, Frank Grillo, Celina Jade

Director: Jing Wu

123 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Cine Asia Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Ian Shutter  

Made in 2015, the first Wolf Warrior movie introduced a commando marksman, Leng Feng (Jing Wu, directing himself). Its story concerned various mercenaries, working for a drug baron, hired to kill the isolated hero, and a subplot involves the hero falling in love with a Chinese army leader Long (Nan Yu, The Expendables 2). In sequel Wolf Warrior II, a prologue establishes Long’s capture and disappearance, presumed killed by foreigners.

Meanwhile, piracy in the Indian Ocean kicks off when a trawler’s fishing nets are used to stop a cargo ship that’s under Chinese protection. There’s an underwater fight sequence that’s made to look like a single-take with kung fu choreography, and it outdoes many of the frogmen scenes in some of the James Bond movies. 

Three years after his ‘dishonourable’ discharge from the Chinese military, Leng (director and star Jing Wu), interrupts a raid on African civilians by mercenaries employed by rebel forces. He then volunteers for a rescue mission to save hostages from brutal Big Daddy (Frank Grillo, Captain America sequels, Beyond Skyline). With the key hostage turning out to be Dr Rachel Smith (Celina Jade, Legendary Assassin), this movie’s basic plotline owes much to Tears Of The Sun (2004). Made on locations in South Africa, this Chinese picture offers a hectic catalogue of breathlessly choreographed stunt work, martial arts mayhem, and a great batch of amusingly devised shoot ‘em ups.

With his stuntman’s daring, and directorial prowess, fast-rising star Jing Wu seems to be positioning himself as a natural 21st century successor to the aged Jackie Chan. Since his screen debut in Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Boxer (aka: Tai Chi 2, 1996), where his credit is Jacky Wu, he’s appeared alongside Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Simon Yam, in Wilson Yip’s police thriller SPL: Kill Zone (2005), and then starred in Dennis Law’s Fatal Contact (2006), about underground boxing. Only about 20 years time, and a ton more new Asian action movies, will finally decide whether Jing Wu really is a suitable replacement for the near-legendary Jackie Chan, but his star qualities and his movie work so far, following or cutting across genre lines, is exemplary.

Although its broad strokes are weakened by some typically mushy Asian sentimentalism, there’s a dramatic UN helicopter crash, plenty of explosions and, perhaps, almost enough stunts with army-sized firepower displays to impress even Michael Bay. Inevitably, a final punch-up ensues between Leng and the mercenary villain. Before that, look out for Heidi Moneymaker (Scarlett Johansson’s stunt-double as the Black Widow) in a fine supporting role. A twist-ending reveals that Leng’s lost-love Long might still be alive and sets up the likely plot for another sequel. Let’s hope this is produced, as it would certainly boost Wu’s career prospects to add a proper trilogy to his CV. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight

Voice cast: Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, Grey DeLisle, Scott Paterson, and Anthony Head

Director: Sam Liu

75 minutes (15) 2018
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
DC / Warner DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by J.C. Hartley  

DC or Marvel? Back in the Silver Age, which was when this particular old-timer was introduced to the world of superheroes, there was no contest. Marvel just seemed more grown-up. Spider-Man challenged the comics code by considering drug abuse, correspondents to the various letters pages argued about Nixon, and Iron Man had an unfortunate tendency to beat up the Vietcong on his way back from tussling with the Mandarin, but you can’t have everything. Meanwhile, over at DC, Superman and The Flash were having a race to see who was the fastest man alive, ho hum. 

With the elevation to the screen, big and small, things seemed a little bit more evenly placed, and if anything, DC started with an advantage. To the public at large Superman and Batman were probably more familiar than any characters from the Marvel stable of heroes, although both Spider-Man and The Hulk had TV shows in the 1970s, and with Superman: The Movie (1978) DC got its universe up there where it counted. DC had another advantage, in its association with Warner Bros, who owned the rights to all the characters, there was an opportunity to present a consistent vision, a coherent DC universe across all media. However, DC seem to have been outpaced and outflanked.  While Marvel continues to negotiate to bring errant characters and teams back into the fold from Fox and Sony, the MCU has released a veritable blitzkrieg of movies, weaving a web of intertextuality between single-character films and team-ups, culminating in this year’s blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War and its inevitable aftermaths.

Despite the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, DC has released a sequence of frankly patchy versions of Superman, a Justice League film which disappointed the critics, a Suicide Squad movie which seems to have suffered in production, and Wonder Woman, which contained many good things promptly squandered by the aforesaid Justice League which followed it.

My teenage nephew feels that critics are biased against DC. Goaded by my brother-in-law, he even suggested as much in an email to the venerable team of Kermode and Mayo, the latter casually, and rather patronisingly, dismissing the accusation as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Despite my obvious affection for my nephew, and my own reservations about some of their output, I have to say that overall Marvel seem to be winning on the big screen. However, what about elsewhere? On TV, things seem more evenly balanced. Smallville, Arrow, The Flash, Constantine, Supergirl, and Legends Of Tomorrow, are or were successful shows for DC, while for their rivals Marvel, Agents Of SHIELD was patchy but watchable, Jessica Jones and Daredevil were outright hits, and with Luke Cage and Iron Fist went on to become The Defenders. Reaction to The Inhumans seems to have been predominantly negative. TV honours probably even then between the two franchises. If there is a medium in which DC seems to have overcome its rival it is in animated features.

I have to admit that prior to Batman: Gotham By Gaslight my only experience of superhero animation was Batman: The Animated Series, back in the 1990s when my kids were little. Consequently, I had no idea what to expect from this film. I have to say that MPAA ‘R’ rated (‘15’ in UK) bloody violence, and adult themes, in a cartoon feature rather wrong-footed me, as I found myself wondering who the film was aimed at. My daughter suggested it was aimed at people who buy the comics, that seems obvious but clearly there is a disconnect between the various audiences for all things super. There are people like me who read comics and know the characters and follow the films for that reason, and there are people who follow the films or TV shows who would never pick up a comic-book in their lives. I suspect that the animated features are unlikely to appeal to the same mass audience that the latest Avengers or Superman film would attract.

Based on a comic by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, Gotham By Gaslight is set in a Victorian-era Gotham, and re-imagines many of the staple characters associated with the modern-day Batman. Given the Gothic ambience of much of the Batman mythos, transplanting a story to the age of sensation fiction isn’t such a wrench, and after all Spring-Heeled Jack, be he superhero or super-villain, made his first appearance in 1837.  This particular comic was a one-shot publication in 1989, retrospectively declared to be the first in DC’s Elseworlds imprint. Elseworlds uses the adverb to indicate stories outside of the official DC canon, although given the wibbly wobbly timey wimey nature of the comic-book multiverse who can honestly say what is canon and what isn’t. 

Millionaire Bruce Wayne has used his money to construct an ‘ideal city’ to host Gotham’s World’s Fair. At a preview of the site, Sister Leslie, who runs an orphanage and centre for the homeless, and Selina Kyle, a music-hall singer and self-proclaimed protector of the innocent and oppressed, clash with Mayor Tolliver, Inspector Gordon, Chief Bullock and public prosecutor Harvey Dent, over the Fair’s projection of Gotham’s image, while Jack the Ripper is stalking and killing women in the city. Later, Wayne as Batman rescues Kyle from the Ripper when she uses herself as bait in an attempt to trap him. Batman realises that the Ripper, whoever he is, is a trained fighter and easily a match for him. Visiting Gordon under the cover of darkness, Batman persuades him to share evidence relating to the case, and thus gets to read a letter from the Ripper pledging to clean up the city by his campaign of violence against women. Wayne goes out on the town with his friend Harvey Dent, and Kyle, with whom Dent is enamoured despite being married. When Dent drinks himself into oblivion, Wayne and Selina bond over their discovery that they were both orphans helped by Sister Leslie. Wayne realises that, as a protector of ‘fallen’ women Sister Leslie is a potential victim of the Ripper’s atrocities, he races to her but is too late to prevent her from becoming another casualty. 

At Sister Leslie’s funeral Wayne is approached by Dr Hugo Strange who is acting as the police department’s alienist in an attempt to profile the killer. Strange also seems to have worked out that Wayne is Batman as he asks to arrange a meeting at Arkham Asylum.  Wayne is also approached by Marlene, an homeless alcoholic, who saw him the night of Sister Leslie’s murder, and attempts to blackmail him for what she assumes was his involvement. Those attending the funeral overhear her accusations when Wayne rebuffs her demands. Batman keeps his appointment at Arkham but is too late to stop the Ripper silencing Strange. When Marlene is found murdered as well, Wayne is arrested as the Ripper. Selina visits Wayne in prison and urges him to reveal his secret identity to Gordon as it will provide him with an alibi, when he refuses Selina says she will go to Gordon and do it herself. Wayne then escapes from prison and assumes Batman’s cowl to try and solve the case first.

This Gotham By Gaslight is significantly different from the comic-book source, particularly in the revelation of the Ripper’s identity. If Elseworlds plots are non-canon, in order to tell stories which would be impossible in the authentic DC universe timeline, this feature goes all out to push that particular envelope till it splits. I genuinely didn’t see the denouement coming until just before it did. Familiar characters are used in ways which may amuse or intrigue fans familiar with the comics, and even those of us with only a tangential acquaintance to the world of Batman can pick up enough references to realise what is going on. I’m not entirely sure that the story of Jack the Ripper is a good choice for an animated superhero feature, but perhaps I’m just getting old.

There are three substantial featurettes on the DVD trailing future animated titles, and comprising footage and cast and crew interviews. These other films are Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay, done in the style of 1970s’ grindhouse, and promising all the gory violence we apparently expect from a Suicide Squad title, Justice League Dark featuring a team assembled to fight supernatural threats, and Batman: Bad Blood in which Batman goes missing and Batwoman, Dick Grayson, Luke Fox, and Batman’s biological son Damian have to fill-in fighting crime.