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Entries in Science Fiction (15)

Saturday
May192018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Writers: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas.
Director: Ron Howard.

WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite jettisoning much of the franchise mythology like a shipment at the first sign of an Imperial starship, ring-in director Ron Howard still feels bound to his Lucasfilm overlord for much of Solo: A Star Wars Story. The latest ‘expanded universe’ episode in Disney’s brand expansion offensive, the origin backstory of roguish space scoundrel Han Solo is a lot better than fans had any right to expect, but it is not the ripping yarn we collectively yearned for when the project was first announced.

With no title crawl, no Force, no Darth (Vader, at least), no Death Star and only a smattering of Rebellion angst, Solo is about as ‘stand alone’ as the franchise has allowed itself to become since it was re-awakened in 2015. Yet there is a structural through-line that ties Howard’s film to the series earliest installments, most notably A New Hope. Both films kick start on a remote, unremarkable planet (first up, it was Tatooine, here it is a scummy industrial city on Corellia), where our hero comes into possession of a small but plot-spinning Macguffin (then, it was R2 and his Death Star plans; now, it is a vial of superfuel).

Like young Skywalker, young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), is motivated by notions of romance; his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is left behind as a fleeing Han signs up with the Imperial infantry, yelling to her he will return, Last of The Mohicans-style. While in the midst of combat on a mud-soaked outer world, he meets his paternal mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson in the Alec Guinness part, although more Fagin than Obi-Wan), the leader of a small but high-stakes criminal outfit that includes a terrific Thandie Newton and multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant (the voice of Jon Favreau, in a part that veers too close to the tone and function of Guardians of The Galaxy favourite, Rocket Racoon).

So sets in motion a well-paced, serviceable heist thriller that Howard handles with the assured slickness of an old school Hollywood pro. He calls upon his preferred support player Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind) to chew the scenery as the key villain, Dryden Vos, as well as demanding career-best work from DOP Bradford Young (Arrival; Selma), who proves adept at both murky/grainy and stark/crisp. Howard also conjures a cute bit part for a franchise favourite, whose career he bolstered with his fantasy epic Willow, 30 years ago.

Along the way, loyalists learn the answer to questions they never asked, including ‘How did Han get his surname?’, ‘How did Han get his iconic pistol?’, ‘How did Han meet Chewbacca?’ (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, stepping into the hairy feet for the third time, for a meet-cute that harkens back to Luke’s encounter with the Rancor in Return of The Jedi) and ‘How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian?’ (the super-smooth Donald Glover).

Ehrenreich brings enough charisma in the title role to (mostly) convince that he could morph into the ‘Han Solo’ that launched Harrison Ford into Hollywood history. He proves physically capable when carrying the action sequences, especially the film’s highpoint – a freight-train hijacking set amidst rugged, ice-covered mountains (one of many nods to the series’ Western genre origins); his rapport with his romantic lead needed another polish, with Clarke’s underwritten part a let-down given the strong roles usually afforded women in the Star Wars universe.

The film takes a left-field spin into contemporary politics with the introduction of Lando’s droid offsider, L3-3L (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, channeling the vocal intonations of Tilda Swinton). Spouting ‘equality for robots’ speeches and leading a ‘free the repressed’ mini-revolt at one stage (not to mention an open attitude to human/android coupling), her presence may be construed as either an honouring of or pandering to the #MeToo movement, suffice to say such outspokenness was not founder George Lucas’ strongpoint. Of the two scriptwriters, her voice sounds most like that of the younger Kasdan, Jonathan (he penned 2007’s In The Land of Women); the rest of the script is pure Lawrence – commercially instinctive, effortlessly heroic with endearing human fallibility, all a bit macho.     

Gareth Edwards’ rousing Rogue One still remains the most emotionally resonant and fully satisfying work of the post-Lucas films. Ultimately, there is not enough at stake in Solo: A Star Wars Story to up the narrative ante into that white-knuckle, crowd-stirring realm. It’s a romp, albeit a bit clunky at times; a space-opera, but one that needed a bit more tuning up. Howard delivers an enjoyable US summer movie ‘event’, but as an entry in the greatest science-fiction film series of all time, it is far, far away from the best of them.

Sunday
Apr082018

ERRATUM 2037

Stars: Elie Benoît, Timothe Beugnet, Alex Lanz-Ketcham, Mariano Vicente and Emilien Benoît.
Writers/directors: Elie Benoît, Johann Benoît and Emilien Benoît.

Screening April 8 at L’Aquarium Cine-Cafe as part of the ‘SF Made in France’ strand of Les Intergalactiques Festival de Science-Fiction; Lyon, France.

Rating: 3.5/5

If ever doubt mounts as to how influential 1980s American cinema has been, one need only watch Erratum 2037, a wonderfully inventive French time-travel/conspiracy theory headscratcher utterly riddled with reverential film references. This staples-and-sticky-tape labour-of-love has been conjured by the Benoit brothers - Eli, Johann and Emilien – who were themselves only future concepts when their clear inspiration, Back to The Future established its own timelessness under Messrs Spielberg and Zemeckis.

The DNA of that classic comedy courses through every frame of Erratum 2037, but so too does that of Wargames, The X-Files, Looper, Sleeper and The Terminator. That the three frères français should craft such a consummate homage while also finding their own storytelling pulse suggests the trio may be destined for a broader canvas and bigger budgets.

A briskly unfolding prologue sets a dark tone, when a police operation to investigate lights in the night sky melds with a mother’s concern about her missing boy. Post-opening credits, we travel back in time, briefly, to meet our heroes Leo (Elie Benoit, the youngest of the co-directors) and Antoine (Timothe Beugnet) as they riff on the how cool the vehicular mayhem is in the latest Grand Theft Auto gameplay. The irony is lost on them when they are run off the road by a speeding van; the only upside of the near-miss a device, the BC-180, that falls from the truck.

The boys fire up the machine, to no immediate affect; Leo observes, “It’s a car stereo,” which it clearly is, but ‘in for a penny…’ at this point. Later that night, however, Leo’s room pulsates to a Spielberg-ian light show (recalling Gary Cuffey’s bedroom encounter in Close Encounters of The Third Kind). This opening sequence is so rich in Back to The Future references as to almost be distracting. Phil Garbutt’s original music echoes Alan Silvestri’s 1985 masterwork; Antoine notes the BC-180 needs ‘2.21 gigawatts’, an exact gigawatt more than that required by Doc Brown’s flux-capacitor.

Leo awakens in an alternate future-world, a hunted man for the role he unwittingly plays in the rebellion against enigmatic villain Emeric Boldenberg (Emilien Benoît). Our hero becomes a passive observer in the second act, unlike Michael J Fox, whose stardom was assured thanks to the charm he brought to the middle section of BTTF. Leo falls in with surviving agents of the resistance Pedro (Mariano Vicente) and Binglinger (Alex Lanz-Ketcham) when not in the clutches of Boldenberg’s buffoonish foot soldiers. The plot convolutes in that now typical ‘time-travel paradox’ manner that is too layered (and, occasionally, confusing) to detail here, suffice to say the filmmakers generally stay one step ahead of their own plotting, even when it threatens to careen out of control.

The Benoit brothers were teenagers when they filmed Erratum 2037, and it is sometimes distractingly obvious. Teenage boys don’t know how girls talk, so there are no woman characters of note (save for a last reel surprise); their otherwise innocuous adventure occasionally indulges in some icky violence, which must have been fun to stage but does not enhance the narrative.

Where their film soars is as a passionate fanboy’s nod to the influences of their formative years. A terrific floating-car sequence looks like a school project but is so skillfully assembled, plays like similar moments in The Fifth Element, Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of The Clones and, of course, Back to The Future II; Boldenberg’s headquarters clearly resembles Tyrell’s office tower in Blade Runner; there’s even a Star Wars ‘wipe cut’, for goodness sake!

On a backyard budget and with friends and family filling out the cast and crew, the brother’s intuitive skill marks them as natural born filmmakers. Perhaps more importantly, they embrace the historical context of the films that inspired them and enhance the genre with their own love of the artform.

Friday
Oct272017

THE GATEWAY

Stars: Jacqueline McKenzie, Myles Pollard, Hayley McIlhinney, Shannon Berry, Troy Coward, Ben Mortley, Ryan Panizza and Shirley Toohey.
Writers: John V Soto and Michael White.
Director: John V Soto.

Opening Night selection of the 2017 SciFi Film Festival; reviewed at Event Cinemas George Street, October 11, 2017.

Rating 3.5/5

A compelling turn from a committed leading lady and a twisty premise skilfully executed will ensure The Gateway finds avid fans amongst sci-fi types seeking thoughtful, discussion-starting cinema. Having previously spun fan-friendly yarns in the fields of 80s-style erotic thriller (Crush, 2009), horror (Needle, 2009) and police procedural (The Reckoning, 2014), Perth-based auteur John V. Soto takes on the science-fiction realm with his typically slick visual style and strong adherence to that all-important ‘internal logic’.

Working with the learned mind of co-writer Michael White (co-author of non-fiction tomes profiling the likes of Hawking, Darwin, Asimov and Einstein), Soto explores the notion of parallel planes of existence via the science of particle and quantum physics. Providing the crucial emotional centre to a narrative that occasionally requires wordy exposition is the wonderful Jacqueline McKenzie, whose layered portrayal of a grieving woman willing to compromise time and space to reunite with her dearly departed is great genre acting.

McKenzie plays Dr. Jane Chandler, a particle physicist running a small-scale lab with offsider Regg (Ben Mortley), the pair on the verge of cracking the secrets of molecular deconstruction and teleportation. The experiments have led to the discovery of multi-dimensional realities; not only do teleported objects reappear, but they are tracked through alternate worlds, similar but distinctly different to our own.  

When Jane’s world is sent into a downward spiral following the sudden death of her partner Matt (Myles Pollard), she acts with her broken heart and not her level head (in scenes that recall those moments of Jeff Goldblum’s ill-fated melancholy in Cronenberg’s The Fly); the doctor teleports herself into a darker, more ominous other-world and re-acquaints herself with the ‘other-Matt’. Blinded by her sorrow to the trickle-down consequences of her actions, Jane puts herself and her shared worlds at risk, leading to desperate (and, frankly, slightly too convoluted to detail here) attempts to right her wrongs.

McKenzie is an actress confident within the sci-fi/horror milieu, primarily because she largely ignores the genre trappings and drills down on the emotional and psychological underpinnings of her characters. She wasn’t given that much to do in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999), yet remains fondly remembered for the role; as the lead in the series The 4400, she imbued the entire production with immense integrity. Such is her impact in The Gateway; the actress explores the film’s soulful consideration of grief, desperation and compromised principles with maturity, warmth and insight.

At time of writing, The Gateway has already impressed those in the know, with trophies at Austin’s Revelation Film Festival and nominations from several other genre juries. It bodes well for Soto’s ambitious vision, which punches above its budgeted weight thanks to strong contributions from Western Australia's acting community, pro lensing by DOP David Le May and the production design of Monique Wajon.

Smart, emotionally resonant science-fiction is a rare commodity; The Gateway will chart a course through international markets that reinforces the Australian industry does it as well as any sector.

Thursday
Oct052017

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Hiam Abbass and Sean Young.
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Rating: 3.5/5

Having muddied to the point of audience disinterest the mythology of one blockbuster property in the quest for ‘something deeper’, Ridley Scott’s existential musings on origins and creation continue in Blade Runner 2049. Thankfully, in the hands of self-proclaimed disciple Denis Villeneuve, the themes that consume the creator's mind are granted a more finely-attuned grace and depth than they were in the Scott-helmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Bleached bleak yet breathtakingly beautiful in the hands and eyes of DOP Roger Deakins, the sequel that seemed entirely unlikely to Warner Bros and Ladd Company backers who saw red on the first film ultimately befits the legacy of its origin. Blade Runner 2049 embraces the enormous shadow cast by Blade Runner 1982 by crafting a vast immersion in scale and vision, as well as indulging fans the rose-coloured sentimentality with which they fuelled the legend of Scott’s 1982 masterpiece-in-hindsight.

On board as one of the six executive producers (from the somewhat worrying roster of 16 producers), Scott has re-engaged scribe Hampton Fancher to revisit America’s west coast thirty years after the events of his first script; co-writer David Peoples did not return, with Michael Green (Logan, 2017) getting a screenplay credit, having earned Scott’s trust as a story contributor on Alien: Covenant. The writing pair has conjured an expanded setting that recalls key elements from the first film’s neon metropolis aesthetic while crafting new landscapes of desolation and decrepitude.

In 2049, the blade runner cops are themselves ‘skinjobs’, replicants tasked with retiring late model Nexus units deemed too dangerous for mortal relics like the legendary but long-gone Rick Deckard. Blade runners now look like Ryan Gosling’s K, introduced to as he deals with a gentle giant (Dave Bautista) deep in the solar power fields that pass as America’s farmland. In the roots of a long dead tree (‘origins of life’, remember), K makes a discovery that soon reveals a shattering secret that hints at the creation of a new form of life.

That’ll do plot-wise, as most of the critical community have promised the film’s distributors not to divulge key details. Suffice to say (as hinted at in the trailer), Harrison Ford makes a compelling return to his third most iconic character, the script affording him moments of emotion that call on the ageing star to deliver some of the most genuinely moving work he has ever done. Gosling is a sturdy if chilly presence, allowed the time over a whopping (and occasionally testing) 163 minutes to gradually emerge as a more-human-than-human android character (thanks immeasurably to the presence of Ana de Armas as his holographic love interest). As industrialist Niander Wallace, Jared Leto again stumbles as a big production’s central villain, his monologues of sociopathic malevolence sounding a bit too ‘Adam West’ for a film craving deep intellectual connection.

Denis Villeneuve does genre films as darkly-hued psychological explorations, more concerned with the journey than with the destination. As remarkable as it is to reference such films with regards to a Hollywood sequel, Villeneuve’s vision of future-noir hails from 70’s Soviet science fiction, specifically Andrey Tarkovsky’s landmark work Stalker. Under his director, the Oscar-bound Deakins fills every inch of the frame with an artist’s understanding of shadow and light, colour and monochrome, just as Tarkovsky’s lensman Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy did.

His visual obsession with making fleeting moments in time grand experiences means Villeneuve’s storytelling can create issues with endings (see Prisoners, or, Enemy, both 2013; even, for some, Arrival, 2016) and he can’t avoid a sense of anti-climax here. Perhaps that is what drew him to his first sequel - the thought of applying his penchant for inconclusive denouements into a franchise sequel. This is a bridging episode, with character arcs left unresolved and plot developments hinted; all the bluster that the production brings to the closing moments (both physically and, less convincingly, emotionally) can’t hide the fact that after 163 minutes, a satisfying third act eludes him.

One can’t help sense that producer Scott’s true desire is to construct another multi-episode franchise arc driven by origin issues, a la his convoluted Alien hexalogy. In one moment that lasts a mere handful of frames, a bald, muscular Nexus prototype instantly recalls the ‘engineers’ from Prometheus. Does BR2049 share less DNA with BR1982 than it does with recent instalments of Scott’s increasingly irrelevant horror space-opera? (In our Alien: Covenant review, we noted nods to Blade Runner and the replicant mythology).

Fittingly (and, perhaps, thankfully), that’s all in the future; for now, this flawed but ambitious, long but beautiful continuation of a classic can spend its time maneuvering to forge its own lofty genre status.

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Wednesday
Nov162016

MORGAN

Stars: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Vinette Robinson, Chris Sullivan, Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti.
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Director: Luke Scott

Rating: 4/5

Picture raising an id-fuelled, temperamental five-year old, wrapped in the skin and attitude of a wilful teenager, with every associated mood swing potentially resulting in carnage only an adult psychopath can deliver.  Herein lies the essence of Morgan, debutant director Luke Scott’s slick, slow-burn sci-fi thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular synthetic humanoid struggling to reconcile her robotic roots with some very human existential angst.

The by-product of a corporate R&D program run rampant, Morgan is holed up in a wildly over production-designed country estate that looks like the Addams Family mansion from the outside but which hides an intricate network of underground scientific research chambers. These serve to both study and contain Morgan, her skin exhibiting a vaguely metallic pallor (likely the result of having spent her formative years sans sunlight) and her only form of clothing, a grey hoody, hiding a fierce musculature well beyond her years.

The breakout star of Robert Eggers’ 2015 shocker The Witch, the diminutive Taylor-Joy summons the kind of onscreen physicality and ominous presence that makes the anxiety felt by her captors entirely believable. Following an ‘incident’ that leaves Jennifer Jason Leigh’s researcher in a terrible state (another descent into brutal victimisation for the actress, though far less well formulated than her Hateful 8 turn), company ‘fixer’ Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to reassess and potentially terminate the Morgan model. The droid’s fate seems sealed when an encounter with Paul Giamatti’s psych evaluator goes bad; the rat-a-tat dialogue and punchy editing of the encounter makes for the film’s most riveting scene.

Despite their charge’s unpredictable cyber-nature, none of the scientists want to see the increasingly human Morgan shut down, their objectivity clouded by eight years spent formulating, constructing and caring for ‘it’. Behaviourist Rose Leslie, chief scientist Toby Jones, administrator Michael Yare, overseer Michelle Yeoh and hunky cook Boyd Holbrook have all developed strong ties to both the project goals and Morgan her/itself, putting them at odds with the chilly, objective-driven risk manager. Mara is a tightly coiled spring as Weathers, her striking angular features and tiny frame concealing its own innate strength and potential for killer force; imagine Audrey Hepburn in Luc Besson’s Le Femme Nikita.

Fast-tracked into the role of feature director, Scott does a fine job manoeuvring his actors around some familiar territory. Alex Garland’s 2015 cult hit Ex Machina, with Alicia Vikander as the robo-girl, trod similar ground; it proved more intellectually ambitious, though Morgan is a dash more fun. Structurally, a group of stranded archetypes facing off against a relentless non-human foe feels a lot like Alien; said non-human protagonist leaving a bloody trail its wake in a quest to define its own mortality sounds quite a bit like Blade Runner. No surprise to learn that Luke Scott is Ridley’s son and that Morgan is produced by Dad’s production outfit, Scott Free.

If the echoes of too many other films negate his own distinctive voice, the slick visuals and strong characterisations suggest Luke Scott has much to offer beyond the shadow of his father. Morgan isn’t the smartest sci-fi thriller you’re likely to see (the ‘twist ending’ was picked very early on by your critic), but it is a terrific piece of A-list B-movie entertainment nonetheless.

Tuesday
Nov082016

OCCUPANTS

Stars: Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo.
Writer: Julia Camara
Director: Russell Emanuel

Rating: 4/5

Two engaging central performances and a director determined to maximise the potential of his premise ensures Occupants emerges as one of the most effective and satisfying low-budget genre works of 2016.

A low-key alt-universe/time-portal two-hander, director Russell Emmanuel’s crowd-pleaser exhibits all the character-driven drama and high-concept smarts of the best Twilight Zone episodes. He’s probably scratching his head at the protagonist’s home-tech set-up, but somewhere Rod Serling is also smiling warmly that his legacy is embraced with such skill and affection.

Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a LA-based documentary maker who makes herself and good-guy husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) the focus of her latest project, in which she subjects the household to a diet cleansing regime and captures its impact upon their dynamic. Scripter Julia Camara’s narrative kicker is not especially sturdy (what exactly does Annie expect to capture via her multi-camera set-up apart from inevitable mood swings and weight loss?), but there is some sly social satire in the notion that only Californian millennials would assume there is an audience interested in watching them turn vegan.

Showing a sure touch with a series of slow-burn reveals, Emmanuel (a journeyman talent credited with solid home-vid titles like P.J., with John Heard, and Chasing the Green, with William Devane) amps up the tension when Annie’s footage reveals a window into a parallel plane of existence in which two far less happy versions of her and Neil struggle with a miserable life. Presented with undeniable evidence this extraordinary event is in fact real, Annie and Neil take on the roles of voyeurs, peering intently at and slowly identifying with their darker selves living another life.

Annie can’t help but get involved with the ethereal doppelgangers when her cameras reveal hot-button topics like pregnancy and potential homicide; what neither Annie or Neil count on are the consequences when their other selves take a vengeful ‘Mind your own business!’ stance. Events become worrisome, then menacing, the stresses of a life without beer and pizza amplified by nocturnal visitations from beyond this world.

Kudos to Emmanuel and his casting team for pairing White and Pugliese, who have a endearing, convincing chemistry, whether as the buoyant, sweet-natured ‘Annie and Neil’ or as the sad, increasingly tormented ‘Others’. In a bit part played directly to camera, veteran character actor Robert Picardo (The Howling; Star Trek Voyager; Inner Space) plays Annie’s mentor Dr Alan Peterson, a role that adds much-needed weight to some of the plot’s loopier developments.

A ‘found footage’ film by defintion, DOP/editor Emile Harris eschews the familiar shaky-cam, instead applying split-screen technique and believable graphics to convincing affect. The usual illogical elements continue to undermine the genre; why would Annie’s hours of footage be edited into this thriller-like construct? why not go public with such sensational evidence of supernatural phenomenon? But Occupants so convincingly plays to its strengths, such griping seems petty; Emmanuel and his leads provide a giddy sense of thrilling discovery and palpable tension that proves entirely winning.

 

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.

Sunday
Sep112016

THIS PAPIER MACHE BOULDER IS ACTUALLY REALLY HEAVY

Stars: Christian Nicolson, Sez Niederer, Daniel Pujol, Lewis Roscoe, Joseph Wycoff, Tansy Hayden and Jarred Tito.
Writers: Andrew Beszant and Christian Nicolson.
Director: Christian Nicolson.

Rating: 3/5

Playing sweet and silly while keeping irony in check is one of the many endearing traits of multi-hyphenate Christian Nicolson’s fan-boy movie-gasm, This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy. The Auckland-based writer-director’s passion project is roughhewn but undeniably crowdpleasing, deriving some big laughs from a barrage of references that draw upon the two great periods of popular science fiction entertainment –the B-movie cheapies of the 1950s and the post-Star Wars boom of the 1980s.

Working with co-scripter Andrew Beszant and exhibiting an unwavering commitment to improvised energy, the premise stems from Nicolson’s deep understanding and clear affection for such properties as Blakes 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Red Dwarf and Star Trek (whose fan base are already nodding knowingly at the title); large dollops of comedic inspiration come from the likes of Monty Python, the Simon Pegg series Spaced and, in one nutty nod, The Benny Hill Show. Low- to no-budget constraints clearly posed zero concern for the cast and crew, who commit to their director’s enthusiastically loopy vision regardless of wobbly sets, home-stitched costuming and paddocks-as-planets location shoots.

Nicholson stars as Tom, the almost-cool one in a mismatched trio alongside schlubby eye-roller Gavin (Lewis Roscoe) and sci-fi geek Jeffery (Daniel Pujol). Reluctantly roped into a day at the mini-con ‘Quest Fest’, they are drawn to a screening of the schlocky space-opera, Space Warriors in Space. With barely a paragraph of cumbersome exposition, the three are zapped into the film, where Jeffery morphs into the fictitious Captain Kasimir, the trio put offside the evil galactic battle lord Froth (Joseph Wycoff, very funny) and Tom fosters affections for the feisty heroine Emmanor (Sez Niederer). Developments involving giant lizards, leery bikini-clad Amazons, a muppet and tribesmen with a Groot-like economy for words add to the overall air of free-for-all lunacy.

The meta-friendly ‘trapped-in-a-movie’ device allows for lots of knowing satire, utilisation of well-worn tropes and examination of the fan-to-film dynamic. Unlike the melancholy romanticism of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo or smart social commentary of Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, Nicolson uses the structure to play for broad laughs, as Peter Hyams did in the 1992 cult item Stay Tuned, which saw John Ritter and Pam Dawber cast into a cable TV nightmare. The other clear inspiration is Dean Parisot’s 1999 hit Galaxy Quest; less obviously, due to it barely having seen a release outside of the UK, is Alan Donohoe’s Star Wars fan-pic, I Have a Bad Feeling About This, which recounts the odyssey of two Lucas-obsessed lads determined to catch a screening of the original trilogy.

In hindsight, Nicolson may have handed his post-production hyphen over to a fresh pair of eyes; at 112 minutes, the whimsy is not always maintained and the film could do with a tight trim. But one can’t begrudge Nicolson and his cast and crew the urge to put all they shot on-screen for all to see; the sense that every set-up was forged with passion and persistence imbues this giggly, goofy and genuinely likable genre farce.

This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy begins an exclusive New Zealand screening season on September 14 in Auckland. Full screening and ticketing information on the film’s official website.

 

Wednesday
Jun222016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writers: Nicholas Wright, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt.
Director: Roland Emmerich.

Rating: 3/5

Once again, Earth is the battlefield in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s gleeful, cheese-whiz sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. Reuniting many of the original players for a '50's comic-book plot’ that manages to be both preposterously convoluted and gossamer thin, critics the world over are likely to use those words, ‘Earth’ and ‘battlefield,’ with wild abandon when shredding this latest alien invasion spectacle.

But if the clunky dialogue, square-jawed heroics and plethora of ‘puh-leeze!’ moments occasionally recall that Travolta travesty, Emmerich and his army of five(!) writers and tech wizards nevertheless deliver grand-scale sci-fi spectacle and old-school human heroics the likes of which Hollywood has neglected in this era of the Marvel/DC tentpole. As reflected in the re-casting of ageing stars Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and a tagline that sends shivers down the spine of the original film’s then-young key demo, Emmerich’s own resurgence as a director is a 20-year throwback to those glory days of 1996 when large-scale destruction did not recall 9/11 imagery and the scourge of cyber-cynicism was still a ways off.

An attention-grabbing set-up posits the sequel in a vividly imagined alternate 2016, in which the alien technology captured when the Earth armies defeated the space invaders in 1996 has reshaped everyday life. In this world, the President is already a woman (Sela Ward, burdened with some of the script’s most on-the-nose dialogue) and the global community is one, still basking in the US-led glory of borderless comradeship. How a female commander-in-chief and a unified planet will play in the real-2016 climate of fervent fundamental ideologies and rife Trump/Brexit-style nationalism, is perhaps the sequel’s most daring gamble. But, hey, it’s only a movie…

To delve too deeply into the machinations of the plot would be to do Resurgence a disservice and entirely overstate its importance. In B-movie terms, the re-emergence of the aliens and the means by which the human race combat them is conveyed in a handful of scenes where good actors use words like “fusion” and “override” and “window of opportunity,” then repeat those sentences to a room full of gathered extras who nod and look worried.

Similarly, personal subplots that are easily defined and resolved with instantly accessible sentiment are all these cast-heavy disaster spectacles require. Jeff Goldblum, a bespectacled silver-fox cut from the ‘Indiana Jones’ school of heroic academic, returns as tech whiz David Levinson, whose role in the 1996 victory has seen him elevated to valued government advisor. The years have not been so good to President Whitmore (a terrific Bill Pullman), who is cursed with nightmares and mental fatigue that begin to take on prescient qualities (and which also afflict the not-dead-after-all Brent Spiner as Dr Okun and Deobai Operai’s African warlord, Umbutu).

A trio of new faces provide the bulk of the derring-do, including Liam Hemsworth as the roguish fighter pilot-turned-moon tug captain Jake Morrison; It Follows' Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patricia, a Presidential aide and Morrison’s gal pal; and, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, an academy ace and son of the late Steven Hiller, thereby providing the only connection (aside from a fleetingly glimpsed portrait in the rebuilt White House) to the original’s action lead, Will Smith. Sidekick duties are performed by Travis Tope as Jake’s co-pilot Charlie, bringing the ‘Anthony Edwards/Goose’ vibe; Chinese starlet Angelababy as the best of the East’s pilots (and a none-too-subtle nod to the current importance of global distribution); and Judd Hirsch, still nailing ‘grizzly Jewish father’ with bravado as Julius Levinson. And, providing that unexpected first degree of separation to Euro-badboy Lars von Trier, an occasionally bewildered Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, that Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a French/UK psychiatrist.

Upping their profile this time around are the invading hordes, whose physicality resembles a mash-up of great space visitors from the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, primarily James Cameron’s Aliens and John McTiernan’s Predator (as well Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and the little-seen 2012 Italian sci-fier, The Arrival of Wang). Their CGI rendering is detailed and impressive, yet remains just this side of over-polished; there is an overall retro-vibe to the effects work and a faded palette to the visuals that thankfully denies the epic the shimmering, fake textures of most modern blockbusters.

Roland Emmerich’s career has been peppered with fine ‘half-movies’, films that build to a second-act climax then have nowhere interesting to go for an hour. Think of the wave hitting New York in The Day After Tomorrow; the big lizard hitting New York in Godzilla; the destruction of America’s west coat in Independence Day. All awe-inspiring sequences, some even achieving a high emotional element, yet robing their respective narratives of momentum, leaving a third act that hobbles to the finish film.

He overcomes this narrative failing in Resurgence. The mid-section arrival of the alien spacecraft delivers immense scope and scale, but the film kicks on to a denouement that, like the enormous intergalactic vessel of war, can be seen coming from miles away but provides bang for buck. He also manages to temper the jingoism of the 1996 film, a time when America’s role as the world’s do-gooders did not cast its own immense shadow like it does today.

Independence Day: Resurgence entertains like few Hollywood blockbusters have of late, largely by foregoing pretension on every level and drilling down on the basic tenets of popcorn moviemaking. Haters going to hate, but those looking for old Hollywood (i.e., 1996) thrills will be over the moon.