Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Sender

Cast: Kathryn Harrold, Zeljko Ivanek, and Shirley Knight

Director: Roger Christian

92 minutes (15) 1982
Arrow Blu-ray region B
[Released 17th June]

Rating: 8/10
Review by 
Christopher Geary

A fine British production, this SF-horror mystery-movie is about a suicidal amnesiac with mysterious powers that mystify and terrify his clinic psychiatrist Dr Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold, Nightwing, Raw Deal). Blankly haunted while he’s locked in the hospital’s secure ward, ‘John Doe 83’ is portrayed by Slovenian-born actor, Zeljko Ivanek, making a career breakthrough with his first starring role here, and later seen in TV shows like 24, Heroes, and Damages. After the young man appears to be the cause of several weird events, the initially confused but concerned Gail investigates the stranger’s psychic connection to his creepy mother Jerolyn (Shirley Knight), and The Sender develops quickly into a cleverly composed variation on ghost stories, and horror-hospital movies with genre links to Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978).


Alone at home, Gail hears an intruder and sees JD-83 in her bedroom, but was she really just dreaming of a stalker? Back at work, she hallucinates cockroaches in the fridge, and gets an unexpected visitation from JD’s irrational mother. Strange fantastical happenings build up, accelerate the primed narrative and rapidly conspire to undermine Gail’s sanity. There’s a ghostly car chase, a biblical reference (Luke 1:31) about Jesus, telepathic links that make Gail seem neurotic, and cracked bleeding mirrors that push her right over the edge. Gail is clearly sympathetic to patients on held on the clinic’s ‘elopement risk’ ward, and she rejects electro-shock option as treatment suggested by the chief doctor, Joseph Denman (Paul Freeman), even after J.D. profoundly disturbs another ward resident, the ‘messiah’ (Sean Hewitt, who died in June 2019).


Once prescribed, the ECT episode results in a slow-motion psychotic fantasy of telekinetic levitation and Dr Denman finds that his coldly logical and clinical attitude is challenged by Gail’s more liberal humanist approach. The doctors realise they have very first adult case of baby-and-mother communication called ‘sending’. JD’s own nightmares of dying wreck the stability of psych-ward patients. Shadows and repetitive sound effects reach a black-comedy set-piece with the ‘information’ episode, including an indestructible TV set, and a decapitation stunt. An escalation to brain surgery incites the suitably fiery climax and the finale replays tragic memories of smothering mothering.


Following his creative design work, on Star Wars (1977), and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Roger Christian made his debut as director with this outstanding feature. The Sender led to cult space opera Lorca And The Outlaws (1984), and police bomb-disposal thriller The Final Cut (1995), before critically-derided, post-apocalypse blockbuster, Battlefield Earth (2000), based on L. Ron Hubbard’s novel, failed to please enough tolerant fans of cheesy sci-fi, So, Christian’s directing career, especially for genre movies, never quite recovered. 


That’s a great shame, because The Sender has a lot of fine visionary qualities, obvious in its performances, and atmospheric special effects (conjured by Nick Allder with a modest budget). The overall excellence of The Sender as a psychic thriller was undoubtedly quite influential, alongside Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome (also 1982), upon cinematic horror and dream imagery popularised by A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and the franchise it launched. 


Monday, 10 June 2019

Bellman And True

Cast: Bernard Hill, Kieran O’Brien, and Frances Tomelty

Director: Richard Loncraine

122 minutes (15) 1987
Powerhouse (Indicator)
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

I first saw Bernard Hill playing the part of John Lennon in a televised showing of Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo... And Bert (1974), but to be honest, the first time he made an impact for me, along with everyone else I suspect, was as the doyen of the head-butt Yosser Hughes in Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff (1982). He is also responsible for two of my favourite moments in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings (2001-3) trilogy, in his role as King Théoden. The speech to the Riders of Rohan before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, ‘To Death!’ is suitably inspiring, and the look of weary acceptance at the end of that battle, when he realises he must face the Witch King is equally moving. Jackson, who often lays things on with a shovel (how much longer can the world wait for his ‘Tom Bombadil Goes To The Shops’ trilogy), rather diluted the power of Théoden’s speech by giving Aragorn a similar moment in front of the Gates of Mordor, but no matter. Bellman And True came between film supporting roles for Hill, as club bouncer Bernard in Bleasdale’s sectarian conflict comedy No Surrender (1985), as coroner Madgett in Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers (1988), and as the egg-and-chips hurling husband to Pauline Collins’ Shirley Valentine (1989). 


Originally intended as a three-part TV serial for Thames, Bellman And True was filmed for this format, and as a stand-alone movie, in a link-up between Thames’ film-making division Euston Films, and George Harrison’s HandMade Films. The Blu-ray disc offers the film in two versions, the pre-release cut that went to the 1987 London Film Festival, and the slightly shorter theatrical version. The longer cut has the missing minutes compiled from ‘standard definition materials’, so the restored scenes aren’t Blu-ray quality, and to be honest don’t add much to the story. Director Richard Loncraine, speaking in an interview, suggests that he now wished he had produced two separate scripts, one for TV and one for the cinema, as editing and cutting proved quite problematic. To be fair to Loncraine, it sounds like the production process didn’t leave him a lot of room to manoeuvre. 

Hiller (Hill), arrives in London with the Boy (Kieran O’Brien) and books into a cheap hotel.  The pair are observed at the railway station and followed. Leaving the hotel the next day, Hiller sees Gort (Ken Bones) and attempts to flee with the boy, but he is apprehended in the Tube, Gort later mutilates him with a Stanley knife. Hiller is taken to a derelict casino to meet Salto (Richard Hope). Hiller is a computer expert as well as being adept at electronics and engineering, previously he stole computer tape for Salto for a payment of a thousand pounds, but rather than decode it for him and earn another payment, he decamped with the boy. The money having run out, Hiller has now returned. Quite why Hiller has returned, and how Salto was prepared for him, is one of a few plot-holes that in no way detract from enjoyment of the story. By using Gort to threaten the boy, Salto is able to coerce Hiller into decoding the tape, which provides information on the holdings at a bank near to Heathrow. Once they have the information, Gort uses his criminal contacts to engage the Guv’nor (Derek Newark) who assembles a team to break into the bank. The Guv’nor’s team comprises a Bellman (Peter Howell) who is an alarm expert, as well as a safe-cracking Peterman, some muscle, and a getaway driver.


The bank has a sophisticated alarm system which detects movement. Hiller suggests that by repeatedly triggering the alarm they can convince security guards that the system has malfunctioned, and use the window of opportunity to break into the lower levels housing the vault, having switched to an earlier recording of a video feed to mask their movements. The Bellman (a striking cameo by Howell) suggests that having solved the problem Hiller may as well take his place on the raid as there is no need for his presence. In a visit to the bank, Hiller somehow creates a ‘track’ by which he can remotely direct an ashtray on a plinth in order to trigger the motion-sensor alarms, and no, I didn’t understand this bit and at first thought he’d made a mobile device disguised as the ashtray, but then how did they smuggle it in? The alarm is triggered multiple times and the gang break into the lower levels.

While the security firm responding to the call-outs are forced to occupy the building, the gang are already in situ robbing the vault. The following morning, using tear-gas, the gang escape. Unfortunately a policeman dies from gas-inhalation, and the gang’s plans to abscond are thrown into disarray. Relocating to a cabin at Dungeness, the gang wait for a plane to get them out of the country, but the Guv’nor decides Hiller must be killed even though Salto is opposed to the plan, and Hiller must use all his ingenuity to extricate himself and the boy.


This is a grittily effective thriller, nicely understated, and with excellent performances.  Bernard Hill is totally convincing, and his scenes with Kieran O’Brien highlight the close relationship the latter reveals they enjoyed on set. Hiller is a functional alcoholic, and O’Brien’s character isn’t his biological son, but the son of Hiller’s wife who has abandoned them. Hiller makes up outlandish, verbally inventive, stories for the boy, reshaping their shared history with his ex-wife ‘The Princess’. Towards the end of the film, having discovered that his mother never cared for him, the boy realises that Hiller is responsible for all the affection and parenting he ever received, ‘It was always you’. 

Women fare poorly in the film, Anna (Frances Tomelty), brought in to look after the boy, tells her girlfriend that Hiller is the sort of man who will always be kicked around by women. After sleeping with Hiller, the night before the raid, to calm his nerves, Anna is offered half of Hiller’s share if she will take care of the boy, and all of it if he doesn’t come back. Anna tells her girlfriend she will take the money and abandon the boy. When the boy overhears, Anna tries to persuade him not to tell by encouraging him to touch her breast, to forge a bond of secrecy between them.


As part of the extras package on the disc there are four interviews. Loncraine talks about how the production came about, and notes the differences in filming practice in the 1980s compared to the present day. It’s quite amusing how he appends anecdotes about the non-observance of Health and Safety, and other standards now in current force, with: ‘And of course you couldn’t do that now, and quite rightly so’. Loncraine’s interview is subtitled ‘Running In Traffic’ which gives you some of the drift. He was a sculptor in a previous life, and apparently is responsible for the first chrome version of that fixture on executive desks the Newton’s Cradle (thanks Wikipedia). Desmond Lowden who wrote the original novel and cooperated on the script talks about his own career in film, in editing, in ‘Cracking The System’. 

Kieran O’Brien in ‘Just An Adventure’ remembers his eleven-year-old self making the film, and his happy relations with everyone on set, particularly Hill. When his father had to take him out of school for the four-month production, his headmaster said he would learn more on a film-set than he would in education. O’Brien is a little bit amazed at the scene where he touches Tomelty’s breast given that it literally involves the sexualisation of a minor, but feels that he was protected by Tomelty and all involved. O’Brien is still an actor, and experienced a certain notoriety when he starred in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2005). Composer Colin Towns in ‘Trust’, has good memories of working with Loncraine and producer Michael Wearing, and enjoyed writing music to convey both drama and pathos in the relationship between Hiller and the Boy. Other extras include the theatrical trailer and an image gallery.  


Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Track 29

Cast: Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, and Christopher Lloyd

Director: Nicolas Roeg     

90 minutes (18) 1988
Powerhouse (Indicator)
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Donald Morefield   

“I remind you of someone, don’t I?” Based on his own British TV script, Dennis Potter seems to have written Track 29 as a US recycling effort, adjacent morally to David Lynch’s surrealist noir landscapes and so perhaps influenced by the critical success of Lynch’s breakthrough mystery Blue Velvet (1986). Here’s a North Carolina town where we find a frustrated housewife, Linda (Theresa Russell), unhappily married to a distracted doctor, Henry (Christopher Lloyd), until she meets creepily obsessive Englishman, Martin (Gary Oldman). Falling headlong into her desperately yearning fantasy of an escape from tiresomely domestic boredom, she soon comes to believe that this aggressively naughty ‘boy’ is actually her long-lost son (even though, in a preposterous but clearly intentional casting quirk, Oldman is only one year younger than Russell).


Meanwhile, down at the local clinic, Henry prefers the kinky attentions of nurse Stein (the typically sarcastic Sandra Bernhard), and plots to leave his nagging wife, whose musings lead to electrifyingly stylised fantasy sequences. This harshly delusional black-comedy is centred on the disturbed Linda’s languid eroticism and twitchily juvenile Martin’s wicked misbehaviours. Martin’s comment, that “Being a kid again, is as good an occupation as any,” is reflected later, quite satirically, in Henry’s grandstanding speech. Presented in showbiz terms much like an overblown political rally, he brashly entertains a meeting of adult enthusiasts caught up in their absurd passion for the all-consuming hobby of model trains. To his insistently needy wife, Henry eventually exclaims that “Women and trains don’t mix!”


Often garish and occasionally lewd, Track 29 is a colourfully campy romp with archly silly American melodramas of deeply festering loss and broody guilt, sketching out daydreams of oedipal lust and jealously homicidal rage. Its wryly offbeat sense of humour, exploring movie-making special effects and slow-motion action cinema, includes an orgy of model railway destruction (with thunderous sounds that mimic a real train wreck), some bloody slasher clichés, and fleeting illusions to up-end the demands of mystery genre concerns, and familiarly sensationalist Roeguish expectations. A big plus for this US-UK production by George Harrison’s HandMade Films, is the glorious cinematography by Alex Thomson (who also shot John Boorman’s Excalibur, Michael Cimino’s Year Of The Dragon, Ridley Scott’s Legend, and Roeg’s own Eureka), whose sharp camerawork enhances even the most prosaic scenes and prompts viewers to consider everything we see as a metaphor.  


On its first screening, Track 29 was arguably a picture lacking sophistication as its drama wallows in sudden twists and ‘frivolous’ visual tricks. However, with repeat viewings, the iconic director’s unrestrained cinematic imagination becomes rather more obvious and its dreamy aspects ultimately triumph, albeit quite brutally, over the limitations of any cruel reality. “What am I gonna do now?” It might still be viewed as a disappointment in the impressively creative oeuvre of Roeg. Or its dramas of violence in the pursuit of airhead ‘freedoms’ can be seen as yet another scathing critique of the increasingly depressing infantilisation of western cultures in general, and American lifestyles in particular. 


Friday, 31 May 2019

Who?

Cast: Elliott Gould, Trevor Howard, and Joseph Bova

Director: Jack Gold   

93 minutes (PG) 1974
Powerhouse (Indicator)
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

Questions and theories about personal identity form a major subgenre theme of science fiction, especially in the mind-expanding New Wave that sprang to prominence from the influential writing of novelist Philip K. Dick, who mapped the field’s peculiar authenticity with special regard to humanity in several original books. Cult movies like French horror Eyes Without A Face (aka: Les Yeux sans visage, 1960), and John Frankenheimer’s curio drama Seconds (1966), helped to create an intriguing and ongoing cycle of genre cinema that’s as varied in its scope and character traits as Warren Beatty’s reincarnation fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978), Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner (1982), Paul Verhoeven’s splattery satire RoboCop (1987), John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), Pedro Almodovar’s body-horror The Skin I Live In (2011), and Tarsem Singh’s actioner Self/Less (2015). There’s also a number of TV series, from Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner (1967), and Donald P. Bellisario’s Quantum Leap (1989-93), to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (2009-10), adding yet more diversity and multiplicity of roles to screen stories that interrogate unique identity.

An identity crisis often explores complex philosophical puzzles about the nature of human consciousness, any practical criteria for sentience, and individuals seemingly cast adrift in space-time, that confront the difference between facts and truth, so that vital distinctions - whether depending upon official papers or gleaned from genetic codes - become a fluid reality. Doppelgangers, avatars, and clones or twins, along with mind or body-swaps and telepathy, bring dramatic puzzles and supplementary confusions to SF about the political order and social necessity of identifiable personae. 


“It feels wonderful to be back.”

Written by John Gould, adapting the book by Algis Budrys, spy-fi drama Who? (aka: The Man In The Steel Mask, 1974), delivers a quite fascinating mystery and so it’s recognised today as something of an overlooked classic. Who? is the Kafkaesque flip-side to Lamont Johnson’s thriller, The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), about an amnesiac man suspected of sabotage. Clearly, the original novel, Who? (1958), and Jack Gold’s fascinating movie offer a stylised sci-fi variation of 17th century French mystery The Man In The Iron Mask (often filmed, but to variable effect). Who? concerns a man so horribly disfigured, after a burning car crash, that his lost face is now a blankly robotic mask, his prosthetic head is a sculpted alloy dome, while his new cyborg body encases a nuclear-powered pacemaker in his chest. Is he really a dead man returned to ‘life’, or merely the robotic simulation of an individual, apparently created for the nefarious deception of espionage?


The metal-man is greeted by FBI agents at a German border checkpoint. Are they able to welcome home scientist Dr Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), the same American genius from a top secret Neptune Project? Suspicious federal investigator Sean Rogers (Elliott Gould) acts with increasing paranoia after learning that a Soviet bloc spymaster, Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard), was the overseer of a Russian medical salvage effort that has resulted in a Frankenstein-like enigma. Is this new Martino a ‘red spy’ who came in from the Cold War? Cleverly, and rather wittily, the movie’s various flashback scenes comprise notable examples of a first-person cinematic view-point and so, with this camera-work, we never actually see the original scientist Martino’s face on-screen. Can such a mystery be solved or, at least, reach a fully satisfying conclusion? Would any uncertain ending be a cop-out or a tragic disappointment? 


Who? is a genuinely uncanny tale of subtle ambiguity where doubts remain, because, for disbelieving minds, trust is like a very fragile eggshell. In the old nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, the shattered visage of a broken icon might never be put back together, despite the efforts of “all the king’s men”. Perhaps, without any objective code of recognition, he can only be an imposter. The movie probes the essential mystery of whether any person is, or can be, identified as more than just the sum total of their own memories or human experiences. Even after many interrogations and examinations, the FBI agent is worried that this metal-man’s identity cannot be scientifically proven, nor positively determined. The importance of Who? within the cross-genre field of SF and spy dramas is marked by the challenging aspects of its complexity and originality. Although queries about identity have been dramatised many times since, especially in movies inspired by this one, Who? is a solidly constructed intriguer, and it remains one of the most impressive mysteries of its type. 


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

No Orchids For Miss Blandish

Cast: Jack La Rue, Hugh McDermott, Linden Travers

Director: St John L. Clowes

92 minutes (PG) 1948
Powerhouse (Indicator)
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Richard Bowden

“The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen.” Thus did The Monthly Film Bulletin judge St John Clowe’s film adaptation of No Orchids For Miss Blandish (aka: Black Dice) upon its appearance in 1948, reflecting the almost universal shock and disapproval of the British critical fraternity. Not until the equally vehement rejection of Peeping Tom, over a decade later, would a film face such an onslaught. Audiences, it must be said, found the movie to their liking despite, or because of, the opprobrium and where it was shown, takings were excellent. 


Today, passions have cooled somewhat but, while Michael Powell’s masterpiece has since been reclaimed by fans and admirers, No Orchids For Miss Blandish still remains outside looking in at the party, a guilty pleasure to some, an embarrassment of cinema to others. Never to my knowledge aired on UK TV, and only recently granted a DVD release, it’s a film which has received some limited reassessment in recent years. Based on a novel by James Hadley Chase, then in turn made into a theatrical production, No Orchids For Miss Blandish tells the story of a rich heiress, kidnapped by a small-time mob, only to be captured from them in turn by the much stronger Grisson gang. Slim Grisson is in love with Miss Blandish and loses interest in the kidnapping as she lingers under his roof. In turn, the rich kidnap victim falls for the crook, starting a doomed romance.


Meanwhile, a newspaper man turned private investigator manages to crack the case. No less a critic than George Orwell praised the original novel as “a brilliant piece of writing.” The movie attempted to carry over the transatlantic gangster milieu of that book intact, right down to having the entire cast, American or not, speak with an accent, while also incorporating ‘authentic’ settings and idioms into the action, and so on - probably the first film made in England with a purely American setting, as one commentator noted. 


Violent and (for its time) sexually suggestive, lurid and melodramatic, nothing St John Clowe’s picture contained pleased critics happier with a realistic tradition of filmmaking, or middle-class literary adaptations for discriminating audiences. In retrospect, the categorisation of No Orchids For Miss Blandish seems less problematical. Neither sophisticated literary screen transposition nor completely convincing gangster piece, laced with titillation, and with roots in trash culture, I’d suggest that the movie is best seen as a landmark of British crime exploitation cinema. 

At its heart is a love story: that between Slim Grisson and Miss Blandish. It’s a tragic tale too; not just because of the end which awaits the couple, but also in that Grisson is shown as being a fervent, secret admirer of the heiress from the very first scene (his distinctive double-dice emblem on the card accompanying flowers), and so, ultimately, is just as much a victim of events as she. His tragedy is that he soon finds himself overseeing the kidnapping of the woman he loves, while Miss Blandish has the misfortune of falling for someone entirely unsuitable, socially or morally.  


But without the sexual experience he brings she would, it seems, be condemned to eternal frigidity. It is no accident that, early on, her fiancé refers to the “ice in her veins” that needs ‘melting’. Indeed, one of the many things critics found unacceptable in the movie was the depiction of a woman’s sexual awakening, particularly when tied to a liaison out of her class - something miles away from the usual Noel Coward-type drawing room infatuation. It’s a scenario helped by some sensitive direction by St John Clowe, in a work characterised over all by some fluid camerawork. 

Some have criticised the director for clumsiness, but I can’t see it. To give a standout example: although we know Grisson is ‘stuck’ on the heiress, nothing is said between them, except for a barely perceptible nod at her by the hoodlum after their first shock meeting. At a crucial moment later, St John Clowe has Grisson, clearly thinking of the woman, walk slowly up his nightclub stairs, a fairly long crane shot. His impassive face is briefly superimposed onto hers. Then in the love scene which follows she leaves him, wavers, and comes back after a tense delay - events mostly off-screen. We still do not see them together, merely (for the second time) some orchids, and his words of relief spoken over the held flower shot. For a film so explicit elsewhere, the restraint and sensitivity of direction here is striking. 


As Grisson, Jack La Rue is impressive; more so when one remembers that it is almost half an hour before he is first seen on screen at all. A performance over-indebted to George Raft maybe - his habitual dice throwing recalling the American star’s famous coin-tossing trademark - but still touching as a lovelorn thug and whose regular lack of expression and stolid soulfulness says more than any amount of mugging could do. As Miss Blandish, Linden Travers has attracted good words, too.

Others in the cast, even allowing for the variable American accents, are admittedly less strong. Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar), who starts out, Ma Barker-fashion, as the leader of the gang, is less menacing that one might have wished; ‘Doc’, the Sydney Greenstreet-type among the supporting cast, is too much of a stereotype to be convincing. However, mention ought to be made of Walter Crisham’s Eddie, Grisson’s frightening henchman, a very intimidating and malevolent presence. While some aspects of No Orchids For Miss Blandish have been ridiculed, the budget was obviously quite a reasonable one; the nightclub fairly expansive and convincing for instance, allowing the director a chance for multiple set-ups. 


Of course the club, Grisson, and his followers, are a world away from Miss Blandish’s previous social circle. In a way characteristic of British noir and thrillers, the film has a firm idea of class; not only in the separation of crooks and toffs, but upstairs and downstairs (the working class lovers overhearing the conversation of their betters from the basement, at the start), as well. Even the underworld has its social structure, one which the ‘success’ of the Grisson gang is contrasted to the smaller group doing the initial kidnapping. Only love, it seems, can cross these boundaries, but then such romance is fraught with risk. For Miss Blandish, her new relationship brings ‘freedom’, this from the “first man I’ve ever met,” - a slight emphasis on ‘man’ when she speaks implying the anaemia of the class she has just rejected.

Freed from the documentary-style and improving moral rhetoric of much contemporary British cinema product, fore-fronting violence, female sexual fulfilment, and apeing a lowbrow American genre to distracting effect, No Orchids For Miss Blandish quickly became a byword for all that was wrong with cinema, with no chance of any artistic recognition (as quipped future PM Harold Wilson: “No Oscars for Miss Blandish!”). Today, when it’s shown at all, it still receives a degree of scorn - especially from Americans principally unable to get past the accent issue, or those who prefer Robert Aldrich’s remake, The Grissom Gang (1968). To those who wish to discover what all the fuss was about, I can say that the film may be variable, but it’s entertaining and memorable, and certainly an important document of Britain's cinematic underbelly. 


Disc extras: 
  • Miss Blandish And The Censor (2019): ex-BBFC examiner Richard Falcon discusses the controversial film’s history.
  • Interview with producer Richard Gordon, and actor Richard Neilson (35 minutes)
  • Soldier, Sailor (51 minutes): World War II docudrama, conceived by writer-director St John Legh Clowes
  • Original trailers
  • Image gallery
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Robert Murphy, analysis of the different versions of the source novel, an extract from an essay on No Orchids For Miss Blandish by George Orwell, news accounts of the controversy surrounding the film’s release, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Destroyer

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, and Sebastian Stan

Director: Karyn Kusama

121 minutes (15) 2018
Lions Gate Blu-ray region B
[Released 27th May]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

After a rough night, homicide detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman, Aquaman) ‘drags anchor’ to daily work... Ominous music. Telling details of a moral decay. Pointed questions earn blunt responses. She’s back on the case of gangster Silas (Toby Kebbell, Fantastic Four), while giving a hand-job to an informant. In-between drunken mopping alone in bars, there are several flashbacks to Erin’s undercover work as a sheriff’s young deputy, alongside FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan, Avengers: Infinity War). A reluctant daughter, under-age Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), gets her wild-child on, while Erin is failing again at responsible parenting, and simply ignoring urgent police calls from her present-day partner. 


An exhausting night chase uphill results in further clues for the walking punch-bag of a heroine who’s finally and truly had enough of questions while dealing unsuccessfully with low-life types living in wealthy privilege. Surveillance, off-duty, on gangster’s moll Petra (the violent hysteria brand of Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black), leads Erin into confronting a bank robbery that ends in the frenzy of a gunfight. Having kidnapped the bloodied Petra to save her from police arrest, Erin digs herself into deeper holes of failure, on both sides of the law, skimming from loot, and trying to buy back personal trust for her broken relationships.


With a tremendously bold performance by Kidman, this is a stunning crime thriller about a crooked cop struggling to make right all of her most terrible mistakes, with a desperate vigilante action as the only viable solution to overwhelming problems. As director Karyn Kusama (maker of Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) here seems firmly intent upon presenting us with authentically classic movie styling, instead of the far slicker production values of other, similarly female-led, pictures such as Atomic Blonde (2017). 


Unearthing a buried, but unforgotten past, Destroyer embraces its fatalistic odyssey of a character study with a supremely gritty assurance, to prove that some degree of existential repentance might be possible, even when forgiveness of any sort is nowhere to be found. 


Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Iron Sky: The Coming Race

Cast: Lara Rossi, Vladimir Burlakov, and Udo Kier

Director: Timo Vuorensola  

92 minutes (15) 2019
101 Films Blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Iron Sky (2012) was a knockabout, positively ramshackle pulp satire that sometimes feels like a remake, but isn’t. Showcasing survivalism of the mightiest WW2 fanaticism as a lingering threat (as in They Saved Hitler’s Brain, 1963), it’s a flipside to politically conscious sci-fi like Harry Horner’s Red Planet Mars (1952); and a geek gala from Timo Vuorensola, the Finnish director of cult genre parody Star Wreck (2005). A feast of Naziploitation set in 2018, Iron Sky began with a black American astronaut as POW in a German secret base on the dark side of the Moon. Achtung! From ‘Swastika City’, der Gotterdammerung flies as a 21st century WMD, ordered by new loony Fuhrer (Udo Keir). Brave soldier Adler (Gotz Otto, ‘Stamper’ from Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies) pilots the Luna UFO to NYC, with his bride-to-be scientist Renate (Julia Dietze) as a stowaway sidekick.


They face-off against a Sarah Palinesque/ teabag US president, and the femme fatale PR manager who mimics the existing spoofs of those ‘Hitler reacts to...’ clips; infamously re-subtitled from Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), then being favoured - ad nauseum - by You Tube jesters. It’s a moment of recycled japery that is dizzying as a twisty pop-art meme. Even with formalities of prep for an absurdist Fourth Reich’s long-delayed invasion fleet, led by flagship Siegfried, launching a meteor blitzkrieg of Earth set to Wagner’s anthemic ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, this is not seriously pro-Nazi propaganda, of course, as it gamely spoofs Independence Day, and pokes fun at all national warmonger brands.


Its feverishly comical delirium seems crazy as a Dr Strangelove + Mars Attacks combo. Sharper and wittier than Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, much better fun (as the proverbial moon menace movie) than the crappy pseudocumentary Apollo 18, the various skits of Iron Sky deliver a delightfully farcical twilight of the gods last gleaming and tells us this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but a twinkly-eyed wink; and a space-war spectacle of hysterical alt. future history that could have made Roger Corman turn a shade of Hulk-green with envy.


Crowd-funded sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race is set 20 years after the apocalyptic war. The bitten sphere of the broken Moon was never the same after the nukes fell, and the remnants of humanity finding refuge on the dark side are reluctant to welcome some Russian refugees arriving at the crumbling Moonbase sanctuary where Lunar-quakes rock the closed system. The resident i-religion followers of digital cloud-master Steve Jobs live in fear losing wi-fi and bricked devices, yet their beliefs are not simply ‘intelligent design’ when they claim to be flawless.


Elsewhere in the decaying colony, the poverty of inequality crushes human hope until the leader’s daughter, brave engineer Obi Washington (Lara Rossi), teams up with annoying warrior-wannabe and newcomer Sasha (Vladimir Burlakov), and a hunky local lunk-head, lucky Star Trek red-shirted Malcolm (Kit Dale), for a somewhat Gilliam-esque UFO flight. They discover a mysterious race of shape-shifting reptiles, alien Vril, and a hollow-Earth mythology offers salvation, but a planetary nuclear winter extends ice-sheets far beyond Antarctica, where their last operational spacecraft enters this promised land, a splendid ERB-styled underworld.


There’s a parody sketch of the ‘Last Supper’, a tableaux featuring humanoid Vril versions of Caligula, the Pope, Stalin, Palin-ish POTUS, Maggie Thatcher, Korean Kim, Zuckerberg, bin Laden, and Hitler, chow and chatter with similarly despicable (upper echelon) leaders or ghastly celeb types, mostly dead ones. Highly amusing action effects include our band of plucky heroes on a mission to steal a ‘holy grail’ that powers a Pellucidarean miniature Sun, followed by a dinosaur chariot-race, and later the Fuhrer (Udo Kier playing two Nazi roles) riding a T-Rex into an unexpected kung fu showdown, fighting against a proverbial Amazonian woman on the Moon.


In place of the first movie’s clunky post-war tech and steam-punk retro influences, Iron Sky 2 explores a witty parody of von Daniken’s ancient ETs, remixing satirical skiffy with hectic adventures of the decidedly Ripleyesque/ Lara Croft mannered heroine. One droll ditty playing over the closing credits recalls that comically mismatched ‘Benson, Arizona’ theme song from John Carpenter’s classic Dark Star (1974). The epilogue of destination Mars sets up another sequel, of course. Let’s hope that creative director Vuorensola can muster up enough financial support for it. 


Monday, 22 April 2019

Howard The Duck

Cast: Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones

Director: Willard Huyck   

122 minutes (12) 1986
101 Films Blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Originally created by Steve Gerber for Marvel comics, the live-action adaptation Howard The Duck introduced cinema-goers to a bizarre comic-book visitor from a parallel world, in a USA-styled ‘small universe’, who gets mysteriously stranded on Earth, in Cleveland, Ohio. Rock-starlet hopeful and sympathetic heroine Beverly (Lea Thompson, Back To The Future, TV sitcom Caroline In The City), takes Howard home, where she puts him up and puts up with all of his cranky misbehaviour. 


A museum lab assistant, Phil (Tim Robbins) tries to help the main plot along, and although Robbins quite sincerely gets into the spirit of this movie’s SF farce, it often seems as if he completely failed to understand that any bumbling comic-relief characterisation was quite unnecessary in a movie about a talking duck. In the routine skiffy twist, astro-physicist Dr Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) realises that flightless exemplar Howard is the accidental result of science academy experiments with a laser spectrometer.


Charged with being an ‘illegal alien’ by local police, Howard’s escape from official custody prompts a flurry of duck-hunt jokes. Social misunderstandings explore satirical aspects of migrant cultural shock with various humans in confrontation with this Other, and Howard soon gives up trying to assimilate, opting to acclimate instead. “I get this feeling there’s some kind of special destiny waiting for me.” Howard’s fortune and fate is determined by chance, but he appears like a guided missile launched by a spectacularly obtrusive multi-verse.


Slapstick fighting in a ‘cajun sushi’ diner eventually gives way for the arrival of Dark Overlords, quasi-Lovecraftian monsters noisily intent on global destruction. The somewhat artless direction by Willard Huyck actually serves this comedy movie well for most of its madcap japes and chase frenzy, including a micro-light aircraft pursued by cop cars, because the basic premise is bizarre and thoroughly absurd enough. HTD is not strictly a space opera, but could fit into the adjacent subgenre or alien-flipside sub-set of ‘planetary romances’, much like Nicolas Roeg’s Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), John Carpenter’s Starman, and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet (both 1984), or (and perhaps a more accurate comparison?) Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).


An almost-unique blockbuster fantasy about Gerber’s cigar-chomping, beer-guzzling alien with a sarcastic attitude (obviously, Daffy Duck pioneered the mind-set), Huyck’s quirky quackers movie was a memorable box-office failure, but has since acquired a strong cult following (pledge allegiance to your new feathered-friend now!). Prudes might have balked at the latent bestiality (does heroine Bev really bed a fowl?), while arty cinema purists clearly discriminated against a movie catalogue of gross absurdity masquerading as surrealism. And yet, in its own peculiar way, this ‘first contact’ sci-fi adventure belongs in the same era's myth-riddled cine-category as Superman: The Movie (1978), and Superman II (1980).


Saturday, 20 April 2019

Mortal Engines

Cast: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, and Robert Sheehan

Director: Christian Rivers

123 minutes 12 2018
Universal DVD Region 2
[Released 22nd April]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

In a post-apocalypse landscape, centuries after WW3, cities on wheels hunt and consume runabout towns in a steampunk fairy-tale version of Mad Max with epic visuals. ‘London’ rolls across Europe, a pirate metro juggernaut scavenging resources from mega-tractors, while following the doctrines of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. A lowly museum apprentice, young hero Tom (Robert Sheehan), is clearly fated to team-up with failed assassin Hester (Hera Hilmar), after she stabs the London’s elite but corrupt leader Valentine (Hugo Weaving), whose quite sympathetic but rather sheltered daughter Kate (Leila George), eventually uncovers a sinister conspiracy.



Based on a book by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines marks the directorial debut of artist and visual effects designer Christian Rivers, who worked for WETA on the LOTR trilogy, Hobbit movies, and Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. Comedy eccentrics populate a vast continental wasteland where the cyborg-zombie Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang) is freed to find heroine Hester, now on a shut-up-and-run escape from auction to cannibals. Wanted terrorist Anna Fang (Korean singer Jihae, Mars) rescues Hester and Tom, leading them to become outlaws. Top-class Brits like Patrick Malahide (Minder) and Colin Salmon (Krypton) round out the supporting cast. 


As expected, this movie stands or falls because of its startling and impressive creativity in stylised super-mecha effects, and quirky human characters are rarely more than just a curious sideshow, if judged against this lavish production’s undeniably spectacular gothic sci-fi and cleverly enhanced mayhem of stunts. Dramatic SF themes with people dwarfed by mobile machinery, provides neat visual symbolism for capitalism, or even colonialism. Fringe nomadic rebels are confined to the equally mobile sanctuary in an airborne haven for aviators, blimp captains, and balloonists. Now history looks very likely to repeat itself with a new catastrophe, using the WMD of a quantum ‘Medusa’ against the gigantic walls that protect eastern realms. 


Basically, a Star Wars for Earth-bound landlubbers, Mortal Engines includes a suicidal air raid on the former British capital, where various Brexit metaphors are obviously satirical. In the movie’s predictable ending, London is burning and grinds to a halt, so the techno-future of any reformed humanity looks Asian.