Monday, 26 March 2018


Cast: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi, and Fumiyo Kohinata

Director: Kazuaki Kiriya

125 minutes (15) 2004
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum Asia DVD Region 2 retail

Rating: 9/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

As a beguiling retro-future, packed to the margins with Jules Verne-inspired sky-ships, primitive but powerful looking machinery, and clustered elements of genre-movie set design work (particularly the baroque architecture of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis), the exceedingly cinematic artistry of Casshern blends its Japanese sci-fi political melodrama with the iconography of heroic fantasy adventure. First-time director Kazuaki Kiriya draws upon manga influences and the animated TV series Shinzo ningen casshern (1973), known in the west as Robot Hunter, fuses his fashionable art-house pretensions to blatant pop/ rock-video sensibilities, and eagerly polishes this big-screen debut’s frequently vigorous live action scenes with gorgeous cinematography and much visually striking photo-real animation.

Indeed, the movie’s prominent colour schema flits dazzlingly between harshly urban ‘monochrome’ sumptuous tinted flashbacks and the positively lurid primaries of a military-industrial ‘present’ where the imaginative back-story offers us a splendid celebration of alternative-history SF, comparable to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, yet without that adventure’s rampant optimism.

Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya) is the angry young man that defies his upper-class parents’ wishes and goes off to war, leaving behind luminous beauty Luna (Kumiko Aso). When Tetsuya is killed on the front-line, he’s re-animated - while his ‘ghost’ hovers in the background - by the well-meaning yet morally corruptible Prof Azuma (Akira Terao), using an untested experimental bio-tech. This ‘neo-cell’ soup also gives rise to a band of freaky Frankenstein-esque mutants led, and driven to maniacal vengeance, by the ranting hysteria of chief bad guy Burai (Toshiaki Karasawa), who promptly escapes to raise an army of robots and intends to stage a coup against the brutally oppressive military-industrial regime. Only the cyber-armoured Tetsuya, taking on the mantle of legendary hero ‘Casshern’, stands any chance of defeating Burai’s mechanoid hordes and superhuman followers...

Despite the wonderfully dark, glossy-gloom imagery, the unhurried pace of early ‘chapters’ in this picture’s story-line may test the patience of some viewers. However, if you can get through a multitude of establishing scenes in the first hour, what follows is a sequence of astonishingly fast-moving comic-book superhero fighting, and some startlingly tragic developments for the characters and their relationships with others (on either side of the muddled conflict). In the end, you will either love or hate the movie’s reliance on style over content for its entertainment value. I thought it was vivid in its action sequences and admirable in its painterly ‘tech noir’ tableaux. Casshern is a movie to be seen and heard, but not necessarily understood in terms of plot, characters, or its mixed bag of genre themes. It runs the gamut of unguarded human emotions from love and rage to expressions of regret and forgiveness, though its sense of poignancy is determined largely by the individual viewer’s responses to the evocative digital-simulations of life, afterlife, rebirth, and death. In those terms, and in spite of its narrative flaws, Casshern is ‘pure cinema’ par excellence, and it gets my vote for SF picture of the year, so far!

The second disc of special features in this DVD package is comprised of subtitled interview clips, 11 deleted scenes with director’s commentary, some 8mm footage - that includes flashbacks to Tetsuya’s childhood, plus a couple of trailers. There’s not much in this clutch of typical extras that’s making an essential contribution to the filmic project or enhancing its production, but I think it is halfway amusing to try and figure out who’s who in the (un-captioned) video and publicity interviews - as at least a couple of the cast are hard to recognise out of make-up and costumes.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Female Fight Club

Cast: Amy Johnston, Cortney Palm, Sean Faris, Rey Goyos, and Dolph Lundgren       

Director: Miguel Ferrer

86 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Exploitation DVD Region 2
[Released 26th March]

Rating: 5/10
Review by Ian Shutter  

Rebecca, alias Bex ‘The Beast’ (Amy Johnston, a stunt double for Scarlett Johansson as the superhero Black Widow), works at a pet shelter, but used to be a boxer in the sinister world of bare-knuckle punch-ups and mixed martial arts. Her return to the underground fighting scene is prompted by a need to avenge her injured sister.

Female Fight Club (aka: Female Fight Squad) instantly recalls such sporting movies as Girlfight (2000), a notable career starter for Michelle Rodriguez; but it’s not really at all like Clint Eastwood’s excellent character study Million Dollar Baby (2004), that stars Hilary Swank. There’s probably a bit too much soap opera here for its drama to be very interesting, and FFC follows the standard B-movie formula a little too closely for its own good so there are precious few surprises in its brief running time.

The narrative flashback structure and obvious low-budget limitations combine, with one particular sequence of sex in the boxing ring that’s inter-cut with a night alley beating, to mark the movie’s editing of elements as clear evidence of a novice director at work, and Miguel (A.) Ferrer is not to be confused with the veteran actor who died in January, this year.

Movies about women in fighting scenarios is a cycle that dates back to the 1980s, when the likes of Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh emerged with a buzz of glamour from a bustling Hong Kong action scene exported worldwide via home video releases. A couple of more recent big hits in this burgeoning subgenre include spy thrillers Haywire (2011), starring Gina Carano; and Atomic Blonde (2017), a great picture for the super-talented Charlize Theron. Obviously, Johnston is rather more impressive in her fight scenes than for her acting ability, but this might well endear FFC to fans of Rothrock’s oeuvre where the same problem was often true.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Battle Of Algiers

Cast: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Samia Kerbush, and Tommaso Neri

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

117 minutes (15) 1966
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Cult Films Blu-ray region B

Rating: 10/10
Review by Tom Matic
It often strikes me as a bit trite when people say that an old film is ‘more relevant today than ever.’ But if the US military’s taste in films is anything to go by, Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and technically brilliant drama documentary The Battle Of Algiers (aka: La Bataille D’Algers) is certainly as relevant to them as it was in 1966. They demonstrated their interest in it by screening the film at the Pentagon, but not because they wanted to appreciate its pioneering role in the development of the drama documentary form. Nor was it because they agreed with the political stance of its director, a member of the Italian Communist Party. Quite the reverse! After winning the Venice Golden Lion in 1966, the film attracted controversy and a reputation as a ‘terrorist primer.’ While the latter charge is unwarranted, I can see why the exponents of the USA’s ‘war on terrorism’ might want to see it - and why they might want to make sure no one else saw it...

It begins with a long shot panning across from Algiers’ European quarter with its spacious Parisian style boulevards, to the more cramped ‘casbah’ occupied by the Algerian population. It is 1957. One of its residents has been tortured by French soldiers into revealing the location of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a prominent figure in the resistance to French colonial rule in Algeria. An extended flashback begins, which forms the bulk of the film’s narrative. It returns us to 1954. As the National Liberation Front (FLN) attempt to stir up a revolt against the French, Ali is attempting to make money out of them, by running an illegal betting stall. Another group of French residents show their appreciation for his services, by tripping him up as he runs from the police. While serving time for this petty offence, he witnesses an Algerian nationalist being put to death by guillotine, an experience that leaves him determined to join the resistance.

Ali becomes involved in the FLN, just as its campaign against the French is intensifying, with nationalists taking pot-shots at policemen on the streets in broad daylight. After an FLN suspect’s house is blown up with his family inside, the struggle escalates. French troops are brought in, led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast), who makes clear from the outset both his studied respect for his opponents and his ruthlessness in crushing the rebellion. His goal is temporarily achieved by bloody repression, graphically displayed in harrowing torture scenes that are all the more sickening for being understated.

Although it is clear that Pontecorvo’s sympathies lay with the downtrodden Algerians rather than the pampered French ex-pats, he avoids potential pitfalls of political drama. The Battle Of Algiers is neither worthy nor dull, its often frenetic pace and brooding tension has frequently invited comparisons with the ground-breaking editing techniques of Sergei Eisenstein. One scene could be seen as a reverse echo of the famous Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin: instead of Tsarist soldiers marching robotically down the steps to mow down civilians in cold blood, we see unarmed Algerians descending the narrow staircases of the casbah to invade the European Quarter and denounce the French for the bomb attack.

They are prevented not by policemen or soldiers, but by the soft cops of the FLN, who snatch the initiative from the angry crowd with a promise to avenge the massacred family in their own (clandestine) way. It came as a surprise to me to learn that the FLN leader in this scene, Kader, was played by real-life ex-FLN commander Yacef Saadi (also the film’s co-producer), because in my view, this film doesn’t do much to enhance the organisation’s credibility. At best, it shows them going down in a glorious but bloody and futile defeat in 1957, with a mass spontaneous uprising emerging like phoenix from the ashes a few year later, apparently without their intervention.

Saadi is one of the almost entirely local, non-professional actors who were recruited to appear in The Battle Of Algiers, which was also filmed in the actual locations where the events of 1954-7 took place. Despite its documentary style, no newsreel footage was used, making its verisimilitude all the more remarkable. With its harshly lit monochrome photography, it has a laconic terseness that makes more recent docudramas like Bread And Roses (whose director Ken Loach would undoubtedly place his films in the same tradition) seem cheesy and schmaltzy by comparison. Contributing to this impression is the constant flashing of dates making the narrative into an unfolding diary of events and touches like the roll call of Ali la Pointe’s previous convictions.

This is not to say that the film surveys the Algerian uprising with a coldly dispassionate eye. Ennio Morricone’s powerful score enhances a tragic and emotionally stirring piece of cinema, with pounding war drums during the initial skirmishes of the rebellion and hauntingly lilting cadences towards the end, as the insurgents are isolated and picked off. Sound plays a major role in the exhilarating closing scenes of the mass breakout of Algerians from the casbah into the European Quarter, with the eerily exultant whoops and shrieks of the rioters.

But despite Pontecorvo’s obvious passionate conviction, the film is unflinching in its depiction of atrocities, whether the illegal ‘terrorism’ of the FLN, or the state-sanctioned, big budget variety used to ‘smoke them out of their holes’ (as George Bush would have it). It is a film that manages to be both impartial and partisan without any piety. While The Battle Of Algiers voices the anger of the powerless, dispossessed and humiliated, it inspires a different emotion in the powerful: fear. This is why it was banned in France, and also paradoxically why US military tacticians are so interested in seeing it. But it’s neither a ‘terrorist primer’, nor a blueprint for crushing the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq. Rather it points towards the seemingly impossible triumph of the human face over the jackboot forever stamping on it.

Friday, 16 March 2018


Cast: Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, and Will Patton

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite  

112 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
LionsGate DVD Region 2
[Released 19th March]

Rating: 6/10
Review by Donald Morefield

Recently, women in Hollywood have made the news, especially for the ‘me too’ campaign against the scandal of sexual predators. Despite this gender profile, actual movies about strong females remain a rarity in comparison to stories of male heroism. Wonder Woman (2017) has proven to be critical success but perhaps that was partly because the movie’s glamorous star, Gal Gadot, wears a sexy costume. On the movie industry’s sliding scale of celebrity focus, political drama Miss Sloane (2016), starring the very talented Jessica Chastain, reportedly cost $13 million but took just $9 million at the box-office. Does that make it a commercial failure, despite being a hit with the critics? Megan Leavey, about a US marines recruit who becomes a dog-handler, is unfortunately re-titled Rex, just as if - for this British DVD’s promotional purposes, at least - a German shepherd can upstage the actress playing an American soldier. Demi Moore’s G.I. Jane (1997) is a very obvious precedent for this type of military drama, and its feminist credentials are mentioned in a throwaway line of dialogue by the central character’s mother in Rex.

Promoted from cleaning duties to dog handler, Corporal Megan Leavey (Kate Mara, from Shooter, TransSiberian, The Martian, Fantastic Four remake), gets the kennel’s resident ‘bad’ dog, a clearly dangerous animal that she partners with, slowly but surely, after she manages to overcome his aggressive behaviour, saying “We’re in this together.” Megan’s deployment to Iraq brings on tedious lonely nights and days of terrorism, while scouting routes for IEDs. She starts on check-points, as the only places where female troops are considered safe from enemy combatants. After three months in the field, Megan and Rex get their first proper mission, tracking insurgents, and they uncover a stash of weapons hidden under prayer rugs in the home of a supposedly ‘religious’ family. Roadside booby-traps and minefields present a frequent hazard, and sometimes recall Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). Rex is never quite as searingly intense as that movie, but a mid-story explosion perfectly matches its acutely disorientating reactions to wholly traumatic events.  

While searching an abandoned school, the alert Rex saves troops from a direct assault in the escalation of hostilities to a war-movie shoot-out that delivers one episode of violent action. While she’s on leave for Xmas, Megan frets over separation from Rex. She worries that her dog will not survive long in the desert war zone without her. Although it is based upon a true story, Rex has a happy ending that borders on fairytale adventure, and there is an angle of interpretation for Rex as yet another of Hollywood’s Beauty And The Beast variations. In terms of genre history on the small screen, Rex also draws upon a bonding story from popular sci-fi TV series The Bionic Woman (1976-8), where the bionic dog Max is befriended by Lindsay Wagner’s cyborg heroine.  

Megan tries to save Rex and adopt him, but military authorities, and a seemingly callous vet, have other ideas. With precious little support from her family back at home, it seems to be one final battle that Megan cannot win. Help for veteran ‘war dogs’ is not a priority, despite her petition endorsed by a senator. Inevitably, and thankfully, this movie offers a heart-warming tale of close friendship in great adversity, and it’s one that skilfully avoids any of the maudlin wallowing that usually accompanies soap-opera styled sentimentality.

DVD extras:
A behind-the-scenes featurette, Love And War (two and a half minutes).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Adjustment Bureau

Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, and John Slattery

Director: George Nolfi

101 minutes (12) 2010
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

You have to love Dick. While everyone else in the SF continuum was still clumping on about Moon-bases and adventuring to Mars, he - and well, maybe J.G. Ballard too, was already into the next level of weirdness. Which is why Dick only later came into posthumous public consciousness, but did so with a vengeance - Arnie’s lumbering Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Tom Cruise’s Minority Report, Screamers - plus one of the finest SF films of them all, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, are all derived from Philip K. Dick’s paranoid vision.

Now here’s The Adjustment Bureau which might just be described as a romance of star-crossed lovers. Although the original short story by Dick - in Orbit magazine (September 1954), wasn’t a romance. Nothing like it... But not much of that original plot remains. What stays intact is the theme. The idea; the concept. That familiar Dickian riff that life is not as we know, or understand, it... This time, history is not a random process. It is controlled, edited and manipulated. And the determining factor here is a spilled coffee. David Norris (Matt Damon) is tipped to be New York senator when his campaign is derailed by a prank mooning film-clip from his college years.

Already the youngest-ever congressman, he’s the kind of clean-cut JFK honest politician you only ever find in US productions. He’s snub-nosed in what some might consider an endearingly cute way. He meets a girl in a black dress as she's coming out of the cubicle in the gents, where she’s been hiding to avoid hotel security. She is Elise (Emily Blunt), who does contemporary dance for the ‘Cedar Lake’ ballet and has something of the arty-cookiness Diane Keaton deployed to such effect in Annie Hall. “Do I know you?” he asks.

No, but he soon will, despite the vast omnipotent cosmic forces ranged against them. They kiss; then she disappears, hotly chased by security. This is where the coffee comes in. With his election plans scuppered he prepares to take the bus to a dull meeting about solar panels. But his movements are being monitored by mysterious ‘men in black’. It’s they who conspire that he must spill coffee on his shirt at 07:05, setting up a chain of consequences. As it is, the operator responsible - Harry (Anthony Mackie) nods off on the bench, and misses the vital moment, an omission that initiates an ‘endless ripple effect’.

David catches the bus he was supposed to miss, finds himself sitting next to Elise, eyeing up her attractively abbreviated miniskirt. They are reunited. Then, arriving at the office he finds the personnel frozen into immobility and being scanned by the men in black. He’s seen behind a curtain he’s not even supposed to know exists. The correctly spilled coffee would have ensured none of this happened. Now, they must level with him, and warn him off. So they explain that they are the Intervention Team who, “make sure things happen according to plan.” They monitor the world.

They can reset and recalibrate reality. They have ledgers with dots moving across grids to represent the intersection of lives. Some things are meant to happen. Others are not meant to happen. He is destined, it is hinted, for the Presidency. She is to become a world-renowned dancer. His career needs his raw hunger. She would fill the hunger, and de-motivate him. Hence their love is not part of the plan. So he tries to give her up, he really does. But, like the lyrics from a cheesy pop-tune, theirs is a love so strong it breaks all the rules. Three years later he's back on the campaign-trail when he glimpses her on the street, and, despite deliberate obstruction, it begins again.

The ‘adjuster’ Thompson (an acidic Terence Stamp) stands at the foot of their bed as they sleep together. “Whatever happened to free will?” David protests. Only to be told “you don’t have free will. You have the appearance of free will.” ... “All I have is the choices I make,” he argues back, “and I choose her.” At the same moment she falls and sprains her ankle, a warning that they’re capable of wrecking her dance-career if events are not kept on-plan. Again, against his better judgment, he walks out on her. Some critics detect trace-elements of Christian mythology in the film’s ‘free will’ versus ‘determinism’ equation, but it’s not necessary to buy into such superstitious hokum to be intrigued by the concept. Are they angels? Not quite, although some theologies have seen them that way.

Are they an ultimately benevolent extraterrestrial race shepherding truculent delinquent humanity towards a better evolutionary maturity? Or a secretive Dan Brown conspiracy-cabal exerting a tentacular influence in furtherance of their own control-freakery objectives? In truth they seem more a dull grey bureaucracy, headed by the Chairman - no messing here with the non-gender-specific ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’. No, it’s the antique Judeo-Christian male authority figure. And they’ve been guiding history forever. Whenever they step back the Roman Empire collapses into Dark Age barbarism, or Nazi dictators destabilise the world into global war. But Norse pagan mythology also invented the Norns, the three Fates who weave the individual threads of our lives into the vast tapestry of existence.

Harry Harrison, with Kathleen Maclean wrote a charming fantasy The Web Of The Norns about it. So it’s a recurrent idea; a useful metaphor. And 11 months later, David is ahead in the polls. While in a spiteful rebound she’s engaged to her ex. The Plan is back on track. The credits for the film include visual effects, but it’s less CGI spectacle than it is human story. The main visual gimmick is the magic doors by which the Adjusters navigate around the city, a network explained in the DVD bonus featurette, Leaping Through New York, although in truth it’s a cinema-splice no more impressive than stepping into, and out of the Tardis.

Meanwhile, only Adjuster Harry has doubts, with his sense of aggrieved responsibility bothering him. He confides to David that the intensity of their love is due to the fact that in a previous draft of the ‘Plan’ they were destined to be together. Their intense attraction is a “remnant from old plans.” So the Plan is not inflexible. It can be amended. Harry also helpfully divulges the secret of the dimensional ‘doors’ - turn the doorknob clockwise and wear a fedora, enabling David to give The Graduate’s wedding-prevention dash a sci-fi twist.

One step through the Museum of Modern Art, the next into the Manhattan Pumping Station, a race through the rain in and out of doors, as the Bureau pursues, and then calls in the Intervention Team for an emergency reality-reset. In a reprise of their first meeting, David finds a troubled Elise again, in the courthouse bathroom, reuniting the lovers. Like the lyrics from another cheesy pop-tune, he sort-of tells her, “if loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” and they escape through the door to the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where they determine to take their protest direct to the Chairman.

Towards a final confrontation on the roof of a building overlooking Central Park, and the Plan is rewritten in their favour. Strength of will and determination, it seems, can change your destiny. Very little of that is present in the original Philip K. Dick short story - just the idea of the omnipotent ‘Adjustment Team’ monitoring and editing, altering and guiding human lives. So when the Internet goes down, and you think it’s chance. Sometimes, just sometimes, it is. There was once a cartoon in New Musical Express of a nerdy sci-fi geek getting seriously menaced for innocently enquiring ‘do you like Dick or Moorcock?’ Well, out beyond the geek-o-sphere we all love Dick now. Unless we have all just been ‘adjusted’ that way?

Saturday, 3 March 2018


Cast: Gerard Butler, Abbie Cornish, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Andy Garcia

Director: Dean Devlin

109 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Christopher Geary

The petulant Mark Kermode might consider this to be the stupidest movie he’s ever seen, but Geostorm is actually just a popcorn style sci-fi adventure, and epic disaster movie of global proportions. This rattles happily along from a wrecked city to a threat of worldwide cataclysm and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Roland Emmerich’s usual producer makes his directorial debut here, and this picture's centred upon the planetary scaled response to a series of climate-change devastations in 2019.  

The solution is called Dutch Boy, a network of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) positions, using pseudo-science and some practically magical technologies, that ‘zap’ natural catastrophes like tornados, blizzards, and monsoons before any damage is done. This level of futurism is attended by widespread use of electric cars, holo-frame gadgetry, and next-generation shuttles, and yet a fairly stagnant bureaucracy still wields an executive power in America. Three years later, when an Afghan village is flash frozen, and mysterious mayhem erupts in Hong Kong, chief scientist, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), who actually built Dutch Boy, but quickly was discredited by a senate committee, is tasked with returning to the space station and solving the problems.

On the ground, Jake’s younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) finds himself promoted to the fall guy’s job, and so a political conspiracy thriller soon develops, lurching from backroom deal to apocalyptic and genocidal scenario, while the feuding Lawson brothers bicker until they manage to settle their differences, and team-up to save the world. In a typical twist, the main villain isn’t exposed by the heroes until the spectacular finale, but following the conventions of Hollywood is also easily identifiable as evil from a first appearance early in the movie. Australian actress Abbie Cornish (who portrays famous TV journalist Kate Adie in 6 Days), is good fun as a Secret Service agent who is prompted into action, kidnapping POTUS in order to prevent a holocaust where homicidal sabotage is disguised as systemic malfunction. 

Weaponised weather-control inventions are nothing new to genre perspectives. Although not completely derivative, Geostorm seems partly inspired by a German production, The Noah’s Ark Principle (1984), directed by the aforementioned Emmerich, with Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), which featured an Earth shield that protected the planet, and British spy-fi movie The Avengers (1998), where a super-terrorist (Sean Connery!) uses an extreme-weather machine to attack London, as this movie’s prominent predecessors.

For such an indistinctive Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, blazing away, through fast-moving set-pieces, with a cowboyish can-do mentality that disrespects everything from American capitalism to physical science, at least the basic human sentiments in Geostorm’s sundry fantasy elements are bravely honest. It boils down to a couple of heroes at loggerheads, while the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and shows that all of the world’s peoples must learn the art of cooperation on the international stage or humanity faces extinction.