Saturday, 3 December 2016

Rigor Mortis

Asian movies like the fantastic Mr Vampire series, and Magic Cop (1990) - one of my favourites, in particular, provided fine examples of a Cantonese fun-fantasy style that helped create Hong Kong’s superhero-cinema brand as such a distinctive and fashionable model. RIGOR MORTIS (2013), the directorial debut of Juno Mak, is a superbly conceived tribute to that era of invention, with updated effects that make stunning use of CGI.

“So, you know that vampires are afraid of glutinous rice?”

Depressed actor Chin moves into a flat in a tower block of rundown housing, where he attempts to commit suicide. Although his hanged body invites evil spirits to possess him, resident spiritualist Lau ‘saves’ his life... 

Beginning with an exorcism fu action scene and eccentric performances of sympathetic characters, the setting of the cursed slum tenement becomes more than simply a backdrop for events. It’s both a symptomatic response to the general malaise of social deprivation and ultimately a vehicle for the negative energies otherworldly oppression. Another well-meaning sorcerer performs a ‘resurrection’ spell on the quasi-mummified husband of a grief-stricken widow. Non-hopping vampires stalk the corridors, acrobatic blood fiends jump from walls to ceiling, and spooky white-haired orphan boy Pak is the almost-mute witness to a crucible of encroaching apocalypse.


Although Rigor Mortis carries on basically light-hearted traditions of the memorable Mr Vampire cycle, domestic violence of the past has left its mark on a building where every day brings another trauma or tragedy and demonic forces (twin ghosts, unmasked zombie) muster madly against the luckless tenants, and so the movie’s plot also draws upon The Grudge and varied copycats. Furthermore, washed out colouring here adds a generally more sombre tone, and ensures the splashy use of vivid reds standout like punctuation and chaptering. This is an excellent blending of digital visuals, gloomy atmosphere, and marvellous horror stunts. It is astonishingly witty entertainment with the mesmerising power of dreams. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Wolves

David Hayter’s WOLVES (2014) wants to be Teen Wolf crossbred with Near Dark, but lacks the witty humour of the former and the thrilling, dramatic impact of the latter. After playing mutant Alex, alias Havoc in the X-Men prequels, Lucas Till becomes werewolf Cayden, adopted by humans for a perfect life at school, until full moon exposure drives him out of town for the Canadian countryside. He meets a local farmer (Stephen McHattie, bringing colour and depth to an otherwise flimsy effort), and couples with she-wolf Angelina, but runs into fanged/ hairy hillbilly trouble against bad guy Connor (Jason Momoa), rogue leader of the wolf-pack in a small town called Lupine Ridge.

Sadly, the shadow of Twilight falls upon this movie, so its romantic plot, unsubtle bloodline entanglements, and climactic heroics, are blunted by some lycan-soap interludes that play out like standard TV-movie fare. Over 35 years ago, The Howling accomplished more with fewer resources, while TV series Hemlock Grove has recently bought wolfen kind back into a realm of uncanny folklore after decades lost to aimless prowling around in a wilderness of slasher/ monster B-movies. 


Saturday, 19 November 2016

DUFE

“Is everybody in?” Scott Derrickson, maker of Sinister, returns to likeable generic horror with, DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). Poor Eric Bana, though. His career, since Hulk and Troy, has lurched up or down without pause for consideration of whether he’s making bad choices. For every welcome change of pace, such as Time Traveller’s Wife, there is a vacuous or villainous part, in the likes of Abrams’ wholly misjudged Star Trek. Now it seems Bana is reduced to playing thankless cop-roles, yet he still faces anger-management issues, in DUFE; a sort of NYPD X-Files with exorcist havoc.

Three US marines, Iraqi war veterans dishonourably discharged, are in trouble with derangement - or possession, according to Latin clues, and the Doors are to blame for it all, apparently. After a night of weird goings-on at the Bronx zoo, specialist investigator ‘Radar’ Sarchie (Bana) finds his sixth-sense hunches prompt him to team-up with an unorthodox priest, on the trail of the soldiers turned into portals for demonic activity threatening city-wide anarchy. 

The urban gothic atmosphere of a classic bogeyman is this movie’s best asset. There’s much crazy fun to be had in the climax of strobes, screaming, subterfuge, and stigmata, where absolution for wrath in the past means choosing justice over vengeance in the present.

Some hysteria later, the inevitable happy ending to a crisis of malice from beyond feels like an epilogistic letdown. Derrickson moved far away from this picture’s gruesomely bizarre appeal to direct Benedict Cumberbatch in the superhero remake of Doctor Strange.                  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Obelisk

OBELISK
Stephen Baxter
Gollancz hardcover £20

***** (5 stars) review by Christopher Geary

This book is the latest collection, from by far the sharpest mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s possible successors, boasts a diversity of deep timelines and intriguing scenarios. It challenges the notion that Baxter might be actually better than Asimov when it comes to weaving together a variety of different stories into a cohesive narrative structure; although that is more accurately a criticism of Asimov’s relative failures at patchwork epics instead of denying Baxter’s ambition to emulate the previous century’s original masters of SF. There are four sections in the book, and the first comprises a quartet of stories, all set in the same milieu as Baxter’s Ultima and Proxima novels.

After an aerial crash, On Chryse Plain is a desert adventure for three kids stranded on Mars. Their survival depends upon optimistic thinking and tech savvy, and the Viking lander is like a welcome guest star.  A Journey To Amasia concerns a post-cyberpunk data miner exploring the centre of the Earth. Standout story Obelisk is about Chinese capital building a mega-structure on Mars. The giant obelisk is a project driven ahead by two overambitious men, and the story features a tragic denouement for a woman. Escape From Eden carries echoes of the first offering, with a joy-riders’ adventure for kids from a dingy Martian work-camp.

Section two is an assortment of six ‘Other Yesterdays’ - alternative histories where the results of halting scientific progress is a shared theme, if only somewhat vaguely. The Jubilee Plot imagines a bridge built over the English Channel and the first race across it, threatened by terrorism. It’s a concise timeline offering more than simply Victorian steampunk. Fate And The Fire-lance finds the Roman empire surviving into the 20th century London where, after a politically-motivated murder, a variation of WWI looks imminent. 

The Unblinking Eye sees an Inca ship sailing into a very dissimilar version of London in the 1960s. Most enjoyable for its critiques of religious dogma, and clever championing of feminism, Darwin Anathema is likely to become an instant favourite, for many atheists, as Baxter presents evolution on trial by the Inquisition creationists of 2009. Mars Abides tells of a ‘volcano summer’ on the red planet for US and USSR colonists. Spanning millennia, from Neolithic prehistory to a 23rd century of radical change, Eagle Song is a SETI mystery of laser signals from Altair. Brimming with big ideas, it’s a pocket-sized epic of hard-SF at its most characterful.

‘Other Todays’ explores a couple of parallel worlds. Pevatron Rats is a fast-escalating SF-horror about super-vermin that can travel through time, and its beginning recalls the infamous ‘rats’ episode of classic TV series Doomwatch. Some even grander ideas are rolled out for The Invasion Of Venus, which explains how a space war in the Solar system has nothing to do with Earth. Yes, that’s how insignificant humans are! Here’s the meat-and-potatoes of genuine science fiction, with simply marvellous stories that make the generic meals cooked up by lesser authors seem like mushy peas and boiled carrots in a pretentious sauce.  

The final section, ‘Other Tomorrows’ offers 21st century visions starting with Turing’s Apples, in which messages from space test the appeal of first-contact optimism as A.I. malware, buried in a signal from alien superiors, produces havoc on Earth - especially for estranged brothers at the heart of scientific and political crises. The macro-cosmic theoretical physics of branes brings a gargantuan slice of awesomeness to Artefacts, a story grounded in the tragedy of morality with humanity as victims of engineering. 

In a boldly impressive tale, Baxter tackles the over-familiarity of superhero adventures with a highly original take in Vacuum Lad. A space rescuer becomes a legend, but his solo accomplishments seem trivial compared to the secretive meta-human colony he finds in orbit. Rock Day concerns avatar sentience after the world ends, and it feels much like a Ray Bradbury fable, with one boy and his dog, and a friendly neighbourhood philosopher. 

Although it is basically just another correspondence story, Starcall delivers an almost pure Clarkean grandeur, as unforeseeable spin-off results from an interstellar pen-pal scheme. Poignant asides emerge from the life-long duration of effort by a human, and the first starship’s A.I., to keep in touch, exchanging audio each decade. There’s trivia, and science and technology notes, and philosophical wisdom found on both sides of a most difficult conversation. Clearly, the need to keep on talking and keep on watching the skies is of decided urgency, if there’s to be any progressive future for humanity.  

Fans of Baxter’s work, ever since his debut novel Raft first appeared, 25 years ago, are bound to treasure this collection of his recent stories. Newcomers will discover there’s an inherent love of the genre, not generics, in Baxter’s finest work which proves again that SF remains the greatest mind-expanding drug available, with or without medical prescription. Do not wait until tomorrow. Go out now, and get your maximum dosage today.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Grand Piano

“Play one wrong note; and you die!” GRAND PIANO (2013) is almost pure Hitchcockian terror with a heist plot unfolding in the middle of an orchestral concert. Musician Tom (Elijah Wood) returns to the spotlight, after five years away from the stage, and is forced to perform ‘unplayable’ piece, ‘La Cinquette’; something that he failed to finish before in public. At the keys of his legendary, recently deceased, mentor’s Bösendorfer, Tom’s heroism is splaying his fingers to play like a demon, because Tom’s wife is in the audience and her life - threatened by a sniper - depends upon him.

In part, this is a dramatic movie about overcoming stage fright, and compromising the unattainable aims of perfectionism. But musical artistry is secondary to the driving rhythm of a heist thriller (musical notes unlock a safe). John Cusack does his familiar cool-killer act. Alex Winter (of Bill & Ted fame) is fine as the efficient henchman. Eugenio Mira directs this with tremendous suspense and tension, injecting levity - if not actual comedy - into several moments with impressive skill. Previously, Mira made stylised Spanish mystery Agnosia, but this marks his Hollywood debut, and Grand Piano’s a significant improvement, especially in terms of narrative coherence, even if it is every bit as far-fetched!