Earth to Echo (91 mins, PG) Directed by Dave Green; starring Teo Halm, Brian 'Astro' Bradley, Ella Wahlestedt The main problem with this wantonly derivative yet occasionally charming sci-fi fantasy about young kids stumbling upon a stranded extraterrestrial is that it's never as good as the films it steals from. There's the cute alien from ET, rendered here as a semi-robotic owl with a touch of Wall-E's Eva; the end-ofchildhood adventures of Stand By Me; the homes-in-peril themes of The Goonies; the homemade filming motifs of Super 8; the last-nighttogether format of American Graffiti; the found footage gag from Chronicle - this is not so much plagiarism as grand larceny. Still, for viewers too young to have seen any of the above there are flimsy pleasures to be had as the group of young misfits follow their malfunctioning mobile phones into the desert, where a distress signal is calling them to aid one of the universe's lost souls. Feature first-timer Dave Green handles the secondhand materials with efficient aplomb, while the casting of Brian "Astro" Bradley, who made a name for himself on YouTube, sits neatly with the film's somewhat self-consciously upload-savvy aesthetic. There are moments of grand spectacle too, with decent enough special effects adding heft to the otherwise dopey finale. Worth seeing for those who haven't seen it all before.
The Purge: Anarchy (103 mins, 15) Directed by James DeMonaco; starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford This surprisingly grim follow-up to last year's dystopian near-future fantasy escapes the home-invasion confines of the original to take to the streets of the city, where chaos once again reigns. During an annual 12-hour free-for-all in which crime - including murder - is temporarily rendered legal, a bedraggled group find themselves huddled together in downtown LA where vigilante gangs, mysterious hitmen and wealthy scumbags wreak violent havoc. The post-Rollerball/ Hunger Games premise may not stand up to much scrutiny, but writer-director James DeMonaco keeps us distracted from the underlying silliness by taking class-war potshots at the ruling elite, whose barbarity (both fiscal and personal) proves the real theatre of hate. Despite the box-office success of The Purge (which DeMonaco envisaged as "a politically subversive indie that would play in small arthouses"), this sequel still resembles a nasty little B-picture, unashamed of its exploitation roots.
Hercules (98 mins, 12A) Directed by Brett Ratner; starring Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell Uber-hack Brett Ratner's adaptation of Radical Comics' Thracian Wars strip has already ruffled feathers within the comics community, with writer Alan Moore calling upon fans of the late Steve Moore (who wrote the source material) to boycott "this wretched film". While the end result is palpably stupid, it's not as terrible as one might expect. Dwayne Johnson is no Steve Reeves, but he seems to have fun debunking and then rebuilding the Hercules myth, ably surrounded by a team of scenery-chewing thesps (you can almost taste John Hurt's pay cheque) who roll eyes and Rs with pantomime relish. Murky 3D silliness abounds as Dwayne and his band of merry warriors variously throw knives, butt heads and wear short skirts. The primary palette is 300-lite, with blood-letting pre-cuts helping to achieve a super-lenient 12 certificate despite shouty anachronistic swearing (one "fucking centaurs", plus assorted "shit", "crap" and "bastards") and a high body count. Not terrible, then, although Pompeii was funnier and had better visual effects.
Northwest (91 mins, 15) Directed by Michael Noer; starring Gustav DyekjEr Giese, Oscar DyekjEr Giese, Lene Maria Christensen This Copenhagen-set lowlife crimethriller replaces the Nordic knitwear of popular Scandi-noir with a handheld aesthetic closer to the downbeat grime of Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher series or the Denmark-born strictures of the Dogme project. Reallife brothers Gustav and Oscar DyekjEr Giese (newcomers cast via Facebook) star as Caspar and Andy, small-time burglars working the city's Nordvest district who attract the attentions of gang-leader, drug dealer and pimp Bjorn. As Caspar starts to ascend the greasy pole of Bjorn's empire, rivalries flare with local fence Jamal, provoking violence which threatens the brothers' extended family. Boasting solid performances from its aspiring leads, Michael Noer's second dramatic feature (after the acclaimed R: Hit First, Hit Hardest, co-directed with Tobias Lindholm) draws on his experience as an accomplished documentarian to conjure a convincingly streetlevel portrait of largely unromanticised crime. While the story itself may lack originality, the miserablist milieu is affectingly real.
The House of Magic (85 mins, U) Directed by Ben Stassen and Jeremy Degruson; Animation with voices by Murray Blue, Cinda Adams, George Babbit A peculiar assortment of ageing British pop classics (the Cure's Love Cats, Madness's House of Fun) adds to the oddness of this House of Magic: 'odd'.
Belgian-produced animation which finds an accidentally abandoned kitten taking refuge in a magically haunted house owned by ageing magician Lawrence, aka "the Illustrious Lorenzo". Video-gamey POV shots send us scurrying through the hallways, attics and staircases of the crumbling pile - a kinetic aesthetic derived from this feature's roots in a 12-minute "4D" fairground-ride film entitled Haunted House, which offered rollercoaster thrills replete with "in theatre physical effects". The narrative nods its head toward Toy Story and ParaNorman, although there's nothing here to match the magic of either of those strange gems.
Branded to Kill (89 mins, 18) Directed by Seijun Suzuki; starring Jo Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari In a previous life, when a leatherjacketed version of my younger self hosted Film 4's Extreme Cinema strand, this delightfully deranged Japanese thriller from 1967 became a firm favourite among audiences tuning in for uncut horror fare and cult midnight movies. Made for next to no money for the Nikkatsu corporation, Branded to Kill found director Seijun Suzuki following his own absurdist instincts to the dismay of his financiers, for whom he had churned out a staggering 40 features in just 12 years. Initially envisaged as a fairly straightforward Yakuza story about a hitman who goes on the run after botching a murderous assignment, Suzuki's deranged masterpiece proceeds to bend everything out of shape; narratively, visually, conceptually. The result so appalled Nikkatsu that they fired Suzuki, claiming that his movies made "no sense, and no money". He didn't direct another for 10 years, although he would later be hailed an influential auteur by everyone from John Woo to Park Chan-wook and (inevitably) Quentin Tarantino. Several decades after its conception, Branded to Kill remains an arresting cocktail of sex, violence and surrealism, shot in monochrome hues which accentuate the perversity of the entire twisted venture.
Teo Halm, Astro, Ella Wahlestedt and Reese Hartwig in 'wantonly derivative' sci-fi fantasy Earth to Echo.