Monday, 28 February 2011

Slice, Dice and Grindhouse

Cine Review: MACHETE
18 – 105mins – 2010
Written by: Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodríguez
Directed by: Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, Tom Savini, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Shea Wingham, Daryl Sabara, Gilbert Trejo

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Stretched out from the most bonkers (and thus intriguing) of the faux trailers sandwiched betwixt the infamous 2007 Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature extravaganza, Machete is – as expected – a preposterous but pleasing fanboy's love letter to trashy, bad taste 70’s B-movie cinema. But I guess you already knew that from the threesome in the swimming pool scene… *Bom chicka wah wah*

Clearly a pet project of Robert Rodriguez’s (he stepped down from directing duties on his Predators reboot, which was shooting simultaneously), Machete could all too easily have been one niche gamble too many after Grindhouse’s muted reception and multiplexes unanimous decision to separate the two entities spoiled the auteur’s illustrious endeavours. Yet this Danny Trejo vehicle (I never imagined I’d say that before!) is a wild n' spirited cheese fest which will always find an audience.

Incorporating all of the footage from the wacky teaser into an even wackier expanded storyline concerning Trejo’s aging vigilante ex-federale crusading against a racist senator’s (gamely hammed up by screen great De Niro) attempts to deport all Mexican immigrants, Machete is a no-holds-barred orgy of bangs, bullets, blades, boobs, banter, bribes, beddings, beheadings and bungled assassination attempts.

Old school genre fans will be whooping with delight at appearances from Cheech Nash Bridges Marin, Tom Dawn of the Dead Savini and B-movie legend Steven Seagal – Machete is essentially an even tackier spoof of The Expendables, so naturally the plot is completely superfluous next to the in-your-face action and relentless impropriety.

It’s a scratchy-screened, jumpily-edited comic book world where exposed intestines can be used as rope swings, burned baddies make thermometers overheat and the corrupt get their comeuppance while the hero always gets the girl, no matter how old he is and how smokin’ hot and waaaay out of his league she may be (Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Lohan and her screen mom – together!). Right, that's it, I’m off to draw permanent marker wrinkles on my face and grow a honking great handlebar moustache… *Bom chicka wah wah* indeed.


In a CR@B Shell: A mash-up of brash trash, but a whole heap of vulgar fun regardless. You’ll either “get” Machete or you’ll get mighty offended, either way you may require a stash of beer to make it through this criminally comical tongue-in-cheek actioner.
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Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Eagle has Crash-landed

Book Review: AQUILA
Written by: Andrew Norriss
138 pages
Published by: Puffin Modern Classics
Originally released: 1997

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I can fondly remember looking forward to the weekly instalments of CBBC’s serialised adaptation of Andrew Norriss’s Aquila as an imaginative 13 year old. A flying spaceship which can turn invisible and freeze time with a laser really appealed to me then - and still does today as I approach my 27th birthday! 14 years may have passed, but I can still recall the thunderous spoken Latin message which accompanied the opening titles. Ahhh, good times!

Even back then I was aware the series – also penned by Norriss, who co-created 90's sitcom The Brittas Empire – was based on a novel, and immediately sort to buy said book, but I can remember being curious as to how they could possibly make a second series (which followed on BBC1 in December 1998) given how there wasn’t a follow-up novel...?

Well now there is! Author Andrew Norriss belatedly released Aquila 2 just last year, and the excited child inside me couldn’t pass up the opportunity to revisit the original story before continuing the adventures of school boys Geoff and Tom and their 6000 year old alien spacecraft.

The underachieving best mates discover Aquila - which means "Eagle" in Latin, in case you were confused by this blog's title - while bunking off a school geography trip and falling into a cave where the skeleton of a Roman soldier is still guarding his prized possession. But rather than using the extraordinary craft to take them on all manner of wild and exotic misadventures, the paper-thin plot instead details their attempts to get the thing home and hidden from their parents and the authorities.

What I found fascinating about the story was how the narrative was just as much about the teacher’s reservations regarding the work-shy pair’s sudden interest in all things bilingual, mathematical and aerodynamic as it was about the unearthed flying pod. Norriss derives a lot of humour from the adult characters – the suspicious school staff, Geoff’s inattentive dad, Tom’s agoraphobic mother, Mrs Murphy the senile, pill-popping next door neighbour – while making Tom and Geoff as “normal” and relatable as possible.

Aquila is essentially a high concept MacGuffin. The extraterrestrial machine isn’t the adventure itself, but merely serves as the catalyst which inspires Tom and Geoff’s personal adventure: it fuels their determination and unlocks their dormant capabilities to achieve whatever they set their minds to. Yes, granted, it’s a twee morality tale, but let’s not forget this is a children’s book, and Norriss disguises his message stealthily beneath the humour and wonder of the lad’s enquiring attempts at discovering what their awe-inspiring treasure is capable of.


In a CR@B Shell: A light, witty and inspirational parable on setting your mind to a goal and reaching for the sky, Aquila impressed me all over again as an adult rediscovering this modern children’s classic and I can’t wait to see where Norriss takes the inquisitive schoolboys in the sequel.
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Friday, 25 February 2011

Unhenged Fanatics

Book Review: THE STONEHENGE LEGACY
Written by: Sam Christer
481pages

Published by: Sphere
Released: 11th January 2011
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“A colourful male pheasant struts the lawn, cued by the first light on the
dew-soaked grass. Dull females follow in the bird’s wake, then feign disinterest
and peck at fat-filled coconut shells strung out by Chase’s gardener”

[SPOILERS] With such highfalutin and unnecessarily verbose prose just paragraphs from the narrative’s commencement, I was concerned that debut author Sam Christer’s Dan Brown-alike conspiracy thriller would be an uphill struggle of lofty and pretentious try-hard poetics. However, once the London-based writer had made his ostentatious mark upon the printed page and the story-proper revs up to full speed, I found myself becoming totally immersed in this horrible history murder mystery.

Set in the days leading up to the much-celebrated summer solstice, The Stonehenge Legacy presents to us a shady secret underworld of modern day druids who take their admiration of one of the worlds most mystical and mysterious ancient archaeological attractions to murderous heights. Following the suicide of his estranged father, archaeologist Gideon Chase uncovers a hidden library of coded diaries which lead him to disclosure shocking revelations about the clandestine group of Followers – and his own family history.

To imply that Megan Baker, the detective inspector assigned to the Chase suicide, “teams up” with the cult-uncovering protagonist (as the paperback’s cover blurb states) is something of a fallacy. Naturally, their paths do frequently cross during the on-going enquiry and she does gradually begin to acknowledge Gideon’s wild claims of blood sacrifices to the Gods, but they never collaborate to the extent Sophie Neveu and Robert Langdon do in The Da Vinci Code. Consider Blomqvist and Salander in the Millennium trilogy – minus the sex and unrequited love – and you’ll be closer to this pair’s relationship, so often are they separate and following their own leads.

The short chapters and even shorter sentences (sometimes full-stops are used where commas would have sufficed) keep the prospectively ludicrous plot at a relentlessly blistering pace, and the introduction of glamorous young American reality TV star Caitlyn Lock and her new Casanova boyfriend Jake Timberland spice up the conventional genre elements with a touch of lustful romance and open up the Wiltshire-based police investigation to an international scale.

Christer does a great job of fattening out his intrepid characters with comprehensive back stories, while the enigmatic nature of the robed and astronomically-monikered Followers allows for many a shock twist in exposing the true identities of the stone worshippers. However, I couldn’t help but feel like the earth-shattering revelations surrounding the sacred (curative?) landmark we were promised (“It is time for the truth” so teases the tagline) took a back seat to the climatic escape scenario, and DI Baker’s significance to the far-too-swiftly-resolved conclusion severely lessened once Gideon acquiesces to a rather dangerous invitation.


In a CR@B Shell: A fine and fast-paced debut, The Stonehenge Legacy is an appealing modern addition to the abundant post-Brown conspiracy thriller genre, if somewhat less of an eye-opening revelation than expected come the rather blunt crime-focused culmination.
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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tears of a Clone

Cine Review: NEVER LET ME GO
15 – 103mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Alex Garland
Based on the novel by: Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins

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[SPOILERS] Akin to Kazuo Ishiguro’s poignant source novel (reviewed HERE), Mark Romanek’s big screen adaptation of Never Let Me Go divides its narrative into the three core stages of its central characters upbringing: Part one gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day life at the mysterious private school of Hailsham, part two sees the teenagers progress into the more relaxed living space of the Cottages, and part three deals with their brief adult lives as carers and donors before “completion” of their sole purpose: organ donation.

The film’s less than vibrant colour palette was impressively faithful to the imprisoning tone of the novel – there are no attempts to add a layer of Hollywood sheen to the drab British countryside setting or austere Hailsham compound – however I was concerned during the opening sequences of the characters as children that the film would fail to capture the many details and idiosyncrasies which made the novel such a compelling delight. Many of the book’s scenes were played out, but in such a hasty fashion as though they had to be included rather than because the director wanted them.

Fortunately, as soon as the children matured into the lead actors, my anxiety faded and I really began to engage with the three friends – Kathy (Mulligan), Ruth (Knightley) and Tommy ( Garfield ) – and their depressing pre-determined path. Much like the grey tones of the landscape, the actors were sensational at discarding their glamour and really embodying these sad, uncertain husks of humanity. Garfield , in particular, completely gave himself over to naïve but kind-hearted Tommy’s nuances.

A lot of people have queried why the conditioned students accept the inevitable and don’t escape the donor system when they leave Hailsham and move to the Cottages, particularly since they have attested to having souls and free will of their own. This is more a “plot hole” (for lack of a more fitting phrase) with the novel than the film, and Alex Garland’s script does attempt to give a visual (if not spoken) explanation in the form of the bracelet detection scanners seen throughout the character’s stages of growth. Big brother is always watching; it is even next to Kathy’s front door as she leaves for the hospital in her late 20’s.

Kathy’s intermittent narration aside, the film cannot even begin to delve as deeply into these characters’s subconscious as Ishiguro’s point-of-view prose does, yet for all its deficiencies, I still felt emotionally attached to the film’s unravelling drama. Admittedly the film is a slower burner, and the fated characters aren’t as radically proactive as they could/should have been, but – maybe because I have already read the novel – I was touched by its moving depiction of life so short and tragic and unfulfilled.


In a CR@B Shell: Heartbreaking and stirring in equal measures, Never Let Me Go may not quite deliver the sumptuous detail of its source novel, but it more than makes up for its early haste by delivering a hard-hitting message through three powerhouse lead performances.
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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Road Warrior

DVD Review: THE BOOK OF ELI
15 – 113mins – 2010
Written by: Gary Whitta
Directed by: The Hughes Brothers
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits, Frances De La Tour, Michael Gambon, Malcolm McDowell

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[SPOILERS] Thirty years after an unidentified catastrophic event “tore a hole through the sky and made the sun descend”, wiping out the majority of civilisation, lone traveller and exceptional survivalist Eli (Washington) is making his way through the desolate, barren wasteland which once was America , on a private pilgrimage to the West.

Arriving in a tumbledown colony made up of suspicious and scared scraps of society living under the tyrannical rule of founder Carneige (Oldman), Eli’s unwavering belief in his much-revered sole possession (the book of the title) piques Carneige’s interest in the wandering outsider, while Eli’s resistance to handing over the crucifix-adorned text (yep, it’s that book) sees the desperate despot dispatch a band of henchmen to secure the treasure long thought lost.

Washington and Black Swan’s Kunis – as Eli’s tagalong sidekick Solara – quickly build up a platonic chemistry which is easy to accept in spite of their multitude of differences, while Oldman sieves and grits his teeth with overdramatic “e-e-evil” menace throughout. It is hard to envisage how a man as defenceless as he has managed to coerce an army of far more able-bodied grunts into kowtowing to his vile and threatening doctrine, but clearly knowledge is power in a future where currency is irrelevant and illiteracy the standard.

The religious overtones of finding hope in the words of the bible forever hang in the film’s periphery, but it isn’t until the lead duo’s belated arrival at Alcatraz that the spiritual MacGuffin takes centre stage. But any trepidation of being preached at through the screen is diminished by the hammy supporting cast (Gambon and De La Tour, I’m looking at you) and writer Whitta’s intermittent attempts at smirksome humour.

Released in close proximity to another – frankly superior – post apocalyptic drama (The Road), The Book of Eli can’t help but feel like less of a revelation than it might otherwise have been. Strong shades of Mad Max also don’t help its cause; while the protagonist’s remarkably accomplished martial arts skills and a curious green tinge to the clouded skyline give the film a more fantastical edge which detracts from the seriousness of the character’s dystopian dilemma.


In a CR@B Shell: Not as drab as films of a similar ilk, but also nowhere near as grave, this post-apocalyptic theological action flick from the sibling directorial duo behind From Hell is a real mixed bag of genre elements which never bores, but also never quite settles comfortably.
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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Survival of the Sickest

DVD Review: THE TOURNAMENT
18 – 91mins – 2009
Written by: Gary Young, Jonathan Frank, Nick Rowntree
Directed by: Scott Mann
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Kelly Hu, Ian Somerhalder, Liam Cunningham, Ving Rhames, Sebastien Foucan, Andy Nyman, Iddo Goldberg

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“Thirty contenders.
Twenty four hours.
One rule: Kill or be killed”
Every seven years, under the watchful surveillance of the world's richest and most unethical gamblers, the deadliest assassins on the planet converge on one unsuspecting town to take part in a brutal game of cat and corpse: elimination by death, only one will survive. The last man (or woman) standing will walk away with the $10,000,000 cash prize and the title of world's number one contract killer.

Think Death Race on foot; think Smoking Aces meets Battle Royale in a literal monster's ball – set in, ahem, Middlesbrough. The Tournament may not have the most original concept, but that doesn't stop it going out all guns raging in a blaze of visceral glory. The characters aren't as kooky as they could have been (Casino Royale's free running Sebastien Foucan and Lost's Ian Somerhalder as a finger-slicing Texan being the wildest cards), but they are bad-ass, and there's plenty of exploding heads, broken bones and executed strippers to keep the most demanding sadist cheering.

Middesborough doesn't exactly come out of the film favourably: represented as a grubby and sleepy backwater hovel dominated by sugar beet factories and a non-existent police force. There is *some* interaction with the city's population – a pair of footballing youngster's in the park, an iPod playing petrol station attendant, a bus full of dozing passengers – but the main contrast between the innocent and the immoral is provided by Robert Carlyle's drunken disgrace of a priest, Father MacAvoy, who is dragged into the mayhem when he inadvertently swallows Foucan's tracking device.

Little is made of this fretful Father's introduction into the tournament; he scarcely gets involved in any of the duals or gets his quivering hands dirty as he is continually protected by Kelly Hu's Lai Lai Zhen. Furthermore, his reprieve from certain death with mere minutes on the clock is disappointingly muted and – epilogue flash-forward aside – his character doesn't seem to grow at all throughout his incomprehensibly horrific trial by (gun) fire. How ironic that this lapsed man of the cloth is feeling lost and without purpose.

The film's emotional core is implemented by returning champion (and horror B-movie regular) Ving Rhames, out for revenge on the hit man who just four months previous murdered his pregnant wife. I liked the curveball direction this subplot took, gradually shining ever more light on the events surrounding this slaying of an innocent, however, The Tournament's two prominent and parallel stories (vicar's virtue and Ving's vengenance) do rather dominate the entire film, leaving little time for any other characters to get a look in.

The DVD cover lists the four main players, and all other bounty hunters are dispatched with so quickly that you barely remember their faces, much less their names – there's even a time-saving montage in the run-up to the third act to take the numbers from eighteen down to six! – while the CCTV-scanning gamblers remain little more than faceless entities who never even try to bride or influence the tournament's outcome, which seems unlikely given their somewhat skewed moral compasses and the make-or-break fortunes they are dealing in.


In a CR@B Shell: A brutal and relentless spraying of bullets and blood: The Tournament will turn as many stomachs as it flips, but for those twisted souls who don't mind getting their hands dirty, Scott Mann's battle royale really hits its mark, even if the story isn't as sharp as it could have been.
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War on Terra

DVD Review: BATTLE FOR TERRA
PG – 76mins – 2007/2010
Story by: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Screenplay by: Evan Spiliotopoulos
Directed by: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Starring the voice talents of: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, David Cross, Brian Cox, Chris Evans, Danny Glover, Amanda Peet, Justin Long, Dennis Quaid
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Taking nothing away from the mind-blowing aesthetic splendour of James Cameron’s envi-fi epic, it’s not exactly blasphemous to acknowledge that Avatar’s allegorical plot was hardly original. Dances with Na’vi’s and Ferngully in Space are two predictable but appropriate analogies, but perhaps the closest comparison is to this animated extravaganza of Russian origin from director Aristomenis Tsirbas, which actually first premiered some three years before the long-awaited trip to Pandora launched into cinemas.

Unfairly – but unsurprisingly – eclipsed at the box office by its long-awaited and over-hyped cinematic blood brother, Battle for Terra manages to condense its invaders-versus-natives into a much bum-friendlier runtime. Humanity is once again the bad guy – wishing to occupy a lush alien world after the destruction of Earth in a civil war between terraformed colonies – with a sole dissenting voice (human pilot Jim Stanton, voiced by Luke Wilson) siding with the passive under siege Terrian’s.

Released theatrically in 3D – but only available on a vanilla DVD with less-than-stellar 2.0 soundtrack; a clear sign of an underperforming rush-release – the extraterrestrial landscapes are gorgeously and vividly presented, it’s just a shame that the animation is let down by caricatured human’s and an alien race which look like bug-eyed floating sperms (well someone had to say it).

However, the same cannot be said for the beyond impressive roster of A-list stars lending their voices to the project: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, David Cross, Brian Cox, Chris Evans, Danny Glover, Amanda Peet, Justin Long and Dennis Quaid all must have seen something in the script which appealed to their artistic integrity, because I can’t imagine their paycheques were that influentially spectacular.

Being a huge fan of sci-fi ‘toon Titan A.E. (it’s a guilty pleasure, okay?), I was interested to see this recent addition to the rather specific sub-genre, but aside from the futuristic locale, the two films have very little in common. The decade-old Joss Whedon-scripted adventure (also a staggeringly poor performer in cinemas; it actually bankrupted the studio who made it) is an action-packed thrill ride; bright and fun and as easy on the brain as it is on the eyes.

What marks Battle for Terra out as different from the pack of CGI features is also perhaps the reason for its own financial failure: exaggerated character design aside, it isn’t a fun-filled laugh fest, but a very sombre and thoughtful anti-war dissertation on unity and compassion for life regardless of race, colour or creed. Even Arrested Development’s David Cross – as robotic duct between the warring factions, Giddy – isn’t the bumbling R2-D2-alike comic relief you may expect but a more logical diminutive companion.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of spaceship chases, explosions and action sequences in Terra, only that they clearly weren’t the driving force behind the enlightening story. Children and adults alike will find many diverse reasons to like this vibrant eco-friendly metaphor, but you may find that when the credits roll you’re more content with its charm than exhilarated by its booms and bangs, while the more sensitive little ‘uns may be quite emotional at the rather adult anti-Disney conclusion to Jim’s personal journey.


In a CR@B Shell: It must be tricky to market an animated science fiction opera which is as passionate about its poignant message as it is its dazzling skirmishes amongst the stars, but this Battle is far from Terra-ble and you’re bound to be won over by the native’s plight, so long as you aren’t all Avatar-ed out already.
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Monday, 21 February 2011

Mock the Russell

Who? Russell Howard
What? “Right Here, Right Now”
When? Sunday 20th February 2011
Where? The o2 Arena, Greenwich, London
Why? Because he's got a lot of fans to entertain
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It's such a great feeling when a band/act/personality you have been following from the “early days” explodes into a household name, and you can smugly proclaim “I told you so” to all those who just gave you a blank look the last time you mentioned his/her/their name. Get you, you trend-setter! Well, that's exactly how I feel when it comes to UK stand up comedian Russell Howard.

Neither pretentious or egotistical, Russell's just a normal young guy, and that's what I like about him. He knows he's a thin, lazy-eyed average Joe, and he's cool with his lot. Even in his first performances on Mock the Week when the louder (and cruder) contestants were drowning out his meek Bristolian tones, I could see the potential, and as his voice grew more prominent, so too did his fanbase.

Back in the bygone days of November 2008, I saw him perform live at the Kings Lynn Corn Exchange. It's hardly a pub gig, I concede, but neither is it a venue which screams “Mum, mum: I've made it!” either. 27 months, two continually extended tours and two hugely successful series of his own digital TV show (Russell Howard's Good News) later, and I was sat amidst 15,000 fellow admirers in the UK's most renowned arena – former home to the Millennium Dome, the o2 – to see Russell's latest touring show: Right Here, Right Now. Mum, mum, now he's made it!

How appropriate that I should mention his mother, as Russell – being the “normal” guy I branded him just paragraphs ago – is forever bringing his family (particularly his mum and prank-loving younger brother) into his humorous anecdotes. He doesn't regale us with any swanky, showbiz shenanigans, because he has none. Here is a man who sees humour in the mundane, in day-to-day life, in Christmas with the family, in retelling gigglesome high jinks, in wacky TV adverts, in bizarre noises, in joyous audience reactions, in trips to Pets at Home. No adventure is too small or too boring to be mined for comedy gold.

Some may bemoan his occasionally vulgar language, but when compared to former fellow Mock the Week-er Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard is a pussy cat. And as much as he may rant his dislike of Twilight, Lady GaGa and Justin Bieber, there is very little animosity in his act; much like his BBC Three show, his stand-up gigs are very upbeat and good-natured events.

It's great to see a man who doesn't take himself too seriously. He knows he isn't a ladies man and is incredibly open about his sexual misadventures. He jumps, dances and wiggles his way around the stage, putting on a variety of voices with such self-deprecating glee as he re-enacts his most excruciating embarrassments – even going so far last night as to reveal a neon pink wardrobe “malfunction”.

His Lidl “home of battered biscuits” joke may have been given its gazillionth public airing (one of the problems with having a weekly TV show is people memorize your stuff), but there were so many fresh funnies on display that I could hardly begrudge the man-who-loves-a-tangent one recycled routine. And with no support act for his big gig, it was left up to Russell to carry the entire night on his lonesome, just one man, one mic, one couch and two hour-long acts of hilarity, followed by his customary Q&A encore. Russell Howard: the people's comedian.


In a CR@B Shell: Good news, everybody – Russell Howard's energetic new stand up show is as authentically engaging as anything he's done before. Fast paced and dynamic, there's something in this young man's repertoire for everyone. I told you so, CR@B fans!
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Friday, 18 February 2011

Braid New World

Cine Review: TANGLED (3D)
PG – 100mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Dan Fogelman
Based on the Brother’s Grimm fairytale
Directed by: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Starring the voice talents of: Mandy Moore , Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M. C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Kiel
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Disney has once again done what Disney does best and weaved its enchanting animated extensions into the roots of an age-old fairytale. In case my hair-related puns weren’t a big enough clue, lengthy-locked Rapunzel becomes the iconic studio’s fiftieth big screen Princess, but the first to be rendered in 3D (unless you count line-drawing-made-flesh Giselle from Enchanted, which I don't).

But adding a dazzling third dimension isn’t the only way director’s Greno and Howard have brought the Brother’s Grimm classic fable into the twenty-first century – this golden girl’s got attitude. Kidnapped at birth by wizened old hag Mother Gothel (Murphy) and locked away in a doorless tower for 18 years, regal Rapunzel (Moore) – with hair magically indebted with the power to defying the aging process – is a surprisingly creative, sassy and independent teen for one so unworldly wise.

Whiling away her youth painting, cleaning and singing to her only friend (a mute but humorously responsive chameleon called Pascal), Rapunzel dreams of her crushingly protective “mother” letting her out to see the glorious gathering of floating lights which each year mark the lost princess’s birthday. She is finally given that opportunity when runaway thief Flynn Rider (Levi) hides in the tower to escape capture and begrudgingly agrees to be the frying pan-wielding gal’s guide in the outside world, in exchange for the stolen crown which Rapunzel has confiscated from the scoundrel.

Pursued by an ever-increasing band of adversaries, including the evil Gothel, the kingdom’s guards, Flynn’s doubled-crossed cronies and a stubbornly persistent horse, the dashing rogue opens Rapunzel’s innocent eyes to the beauty of the world outside her stone prison, while the bold blonde beauty predictably opens Flynn’s heart to love – and an honest life. Ahhhh, well it had to end happily ever after, didn’t it?

The considerable changes to the parable (which told of how the witch tricked the Prince into climbing the tower before Rapunzel can escape) open up the story – and the lush, painterly animation – splendidly, granting feisty Rapunzel a freedom like never before, while the decision to make the charming male lead a vagrant adds a mischievous edge to the clean-cut formula.

Mandy Moore as the oblivious Princess particularly impressed me, bringing a sweet yet spunky delivery to Rapunzel’s optimistic dialogue. Bravo to scripter Dan Fogelman for nailing the confident, modern-day teen routine. Ultimately, Tangled does a far better job of juggling the timeless yet contemporary elements than Disney’s last fairytale outing, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, which just felt far too old fashioned in its attempts to be traditional.


In a CR@B Shell: The Mouse House’s latest beauty and the thief adventure won’t have you pulling your hair out at any embarrassing attempts at fashionable funnies; Tangled is a classic fable which loses none of its magic in staying relevant to its modern audience.
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Rude Slob and the Dweebs

Cine Review: PAUL
15 – 104mins – 2011
Written by: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Directed by: Gregg Mottola
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogan (voice), Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Blythe Danner, Sigourney Weaver, John Carroll Lynch, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons, Jeffrey Tambor

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Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are geeks. Big time geeks. And proud of it. They’ve never been afraid to wear their obsessions and influences on their branded T-shirts and pack their screenplays full of more nods and winks than a Paul W. S. Anderson cliché-fest (see HERE), but without alienating – oooh, I made a funny – the cool kids. I know all too well I’m not one of those fly boys, because I was chuckling away at even the most trivial sci-fi references in their latest comedy romp Paul.

Paul is an alien. He looks just like you’d expect an alien to look: large domed head, bug eyes, a gap where a nose should be and a frail grey body. But what you may not expect is that Paul is a rude, English-speaking stoner with a penchant for bad language. Despite playing an alien, Seth Rogen voices the extra tourettes-rial with little adjustment to his usual loutish, lazy persona. It takes some time for this incongruity between voice and character to sit comfortably, but once it does you’ll be giggling away like you’ve shared a toke yourself.

The Shaun of the Dead duo play Graeme and Clive, two genre-obsessed BFF’s who follow up a trip to the San Diego Comic Con with a road trip around America ’s most illustrious alien hot spots. Witnessing a late night car crash, the pair investigates to make sure the driver is uninjured, and it is here they pick up a third buddy who quickly invades their space (I’m on fire today!!) and joins their cross country campervan excursion.

You see, Paul has escaped from Area 51 after 60 years of scientific examinations and helping influence some of the film industries biggest names with realistic Martian storylines (this inspires a hilarious flash back to an early ‘80s phone conversation between Paul and a certain Steven Spielberg, who needs some help with a little project called ET). But now the little grey man has out-lasted his usefulness to the government, and he eschews their plan to dissect his brain by doing a runner.

Now the trio of social outcasts have a host of special agents (Bateman, playing against type), less-than-special agents (Hader and Truglio), homophobic truckers (Koechner and Plemons) and the disgruntled daddy (Carroll Lynch) of a Christian gal (Wiig) they inadvertently kidnapped on their tail as they attempt to get Paul to the pick-up point where his mothership will come to collect him.

The in-jokes are fast and furious (“Boring conversation anyway”, “Where we’re going you won’t need… teeth”), the humour laddishly dumb, and Pegg and Frost rely far too heavily on childish amalgamated profanities to get cheap giggles, and yet Paul works. Even if you don’t know that the line “Get away from her you bitch” is ripped straight out of Aliens, you do know that “The Big Guy” (Weaver) played the iconic Ripley (right?!), and Paul is such a light, carefree and relentlessly silly caper that you’ll find something to chuckle over, regardless of your geek credentials.


In a CR@B Shell: It’s Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind as Pegg and Frost do America – and a fair bit of idol worship – in this Spaced-out road trip which revels in its genre’s obsessiveness but doesn’t kick mainstream comedy fans to the kerb.
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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Pottery Bard

Cine Review: GNOMEO & JULIET IN 3D
U – 84mins – 2011
Based on the original play by: William Shakespeare
Based on an original screenplay by: John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling
Screenplay by: Kelly Ashbury, Mark Burton, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Andy Riley, Steve Hamilton Shaw
Directed by: Kelly Ashbury
Starring the voice talents of:James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Ashley Jensen, Michael Caine, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Ozzy Ozbourne, Stephen Merchant, Patrick Stewart, Hulk Hogan, Richard Wilson, Dolly Parton

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The works of William Shakespeare have been recited, reimagined and repackaged incalculable times over the last 400 years, but I don't imagine anyone (who wasn't high as a kite) has ever thought it would be a legitimately prudent idea to retell the Bard's most celebrated tragic love story using garishly decorated garden ornaments! Well, they should have done, because Gnomeo & Juliet overcomes its pun-based premise to deliver a garden shed's worth of cheeky giggles and scholarly in-jokes. And y'all thought it was going to be a disaster!

Think Arthur and the Invisibles meets Toy Story and you're on the right track, as sentient gnomes from rival Stratford-upon-Avon back gardens – numbers 2B and NOT 2B (oh, where's the strike-through option when you need it?!) Verona Drive – feud over their different coloured headgear. But when blue-hatted Gnomeo (McAvoy) and red-hatted Juliet (Blunt) inadvertently fall head over fishing rods for one another, can their doomed love survive covert graffiti sabotage and high-speed lawnmower races?

It sounds as corny as a flying pig-shaped weather vane, doesn't it? I will admit that I rolled my eyes at the line “Let's kick some grass!” in the trailer, but rest assured that the army of writers (I count nine – and that's not including Bill Shakespeare as the inspiration behind this quasi-related retelling) raise their game far higher over the course of the animated escapades. Okay, so first and foremost it is a tragedy-averting kid's flick (Jensen's talking frog and Cumming's exotic flamingo being the most obvious panderers to the young demographic), but I was genuinely amused throughout, as the film's tongue stays firmly within its porcelain cheek.

The characters are cute, the set-up is audacious, the referential in-jokes are frequent (and dive into the Bard's plentiful canon – look out for Tempest Teapots and Rosencrans and Guildenstern Movers), but most importantly of all: the casting is impeccable. Parents will have a blast putting names to voices, particularly when Patrick Stewart pipes up in a cameo as a Shakespeare-shaped park monument ridiculing the notion that the age-old love story could possibly end any other way than tragically. Clearly he didn't see that this was a “U”...


In a CR@B Shell: Bright, camp and not afraid to take an acre's worth of liberties, but Gnomeo & Juliet is a surprisingly hilarious Brit-flavoured CGI comedy which will have you "cracking" up, provided you aren't expecting the RSC...
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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Wait – I’ve got ANOTHER Life?!!

DVD Review: RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION
15 – 90mins – 2007
Written by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr, Ali Larter, Iain Glen , Ashanti , Christopher Egan, Spencer Locke, Matthew Marsden, Jason O’Mara, Mike Epps

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Much like the T-virus infected adversaries who litter the streets of Raccoon City and beyond, the Resident Evil film series will just not die. No matter how many rounds of critical lambasting are directed their way, a couple of years later another one will shuffle and groan its way into the cinemas. It’s not even like the game’s fans think the big screen spin-offs hold a dismembered limb to their cherished console classics – so who is keeping this rotten saga lumbering on??

And breathe... Okay, rant over. After all that seething, it may surprise you to learn that Extinction – the third in the four (to date) part series – is my favourite Resident Evil film to date. Admittedly I have yet to see 2010’s Afterlife, but still “favourite” isn’t saying much: the 2002 original and follow up Apocalypse were dismal. And I’m a huge zombie nut. But then we are dealing with director Paul W. S. Anderson here (Alien vs Predator – need I say more?), who is still scribing this series even if he is no longer behind the lens.

I was impressed by the double bluff opening sequence which slickly introduced us to the mysterious “Project Alice” by cloning the original film’s mansion awakening, but once the real-but-psychically-enhanced Alice (Jovovich) – surviving off the grid for some five years since the devastating outbreak – is back to her usual slogging and slaughtering, the film regresses to a generic safe ground: it’s still watchable enough, it just feels so familiar.

The Umbrella Corporation’s aforementioned project – to find a cure for the rabid infection by extracting a genetic serum from clones of Alice – is shown in its experimental stage to humanize the zombies in scenes straight out of George A. Romero’s landmark Day of the Dead, while the clone breeding ground is discovered by Alice in much the same fashion to how Ripley sees a sea of failed test subjects in Alien Resurrection.

On a positive note, the schematic scene changes are stylishly executed, while the infected raven attack sequence is pretty cool (certainly better than the devil dogs, that’s for sure!), but the bulk of Extinction feels like a long-winded red-herring, with Alice joining Claire Redfield’s (Ali Larter) caravan of survivors on a Mad Max-style romp through the desert – only for Alice to drop out of the convoy as soon as the plan is established to head to the Arctic, leaving her free to face-off alone against a genetically mutated scientist (Iain Glen) in a replica of the “big boss” showdown against Nemesis from the last film


In a CR@B Shell: Anderson’s unintentional ode to genre classics is an adequately entertaining if totally unoriginal popcorn horror. Resident Evil: Extinction was everything I expected it to be – because I’d seen many of its core plotlines before.
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Tackling Terror with Terror

DVD Review: UNTHINKABLE
18 – 97mins – 2010
Written by: Peter Woodward
Directed by: Gregor Jordan
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Ann Moss, Michael Sheen, Stephen Root, Martin Donovan, Gil Bellows, Brandon Routh, Lora Kojovic, Holmes Osborne, Joshua Harto

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Marketed like a more severe, extended episode of 24, but closer in tone to a thinking man’s Hostel, terrorist drama Unthinkable has lofty aspirations to deliver a “punch to the gut” reaction analogous to American History X by showcasing the shocking lengths (in-)humanity will stretch to if required. Simply put, things get ugly. Very quickly.

Samuel L. Jackson turns his sinister, bad-ass Lakeview Terrace persona up to 11, 000 as vigilante black ops interrogator "H", a man who takes the law into his own deranged hands to “inspire” a confession from terrorist prisoner – and Islamic convert – Steven Arthur Younger (Michael Sheen). Do the ends justify the torture porn means? Will Younger disclose the location of his three hidden nuclear bombs? Will FBI agent Carrie-Anne Moss fair any better with the hostage by following the letter of the law?

Peter Woodward’s script certainly blurs the boundaries better right and wrong, but it does begin to feel like it is forcibly goading controversy in its unconstitutional extremes. It is also a pity that Younger is so unemotionally resigned to his fate that you never pity the prisoner, therefore lessening the grand lesson. Ultimately, this psychological thriller thinks itself far more intelligent than it actually is.


In a CR@B Shell: Rogue government agents, terrorists and religious extremists – Unthinkable goes all out to insight debate, but in its obsession to stir as many pots as possible it strives too hard and fails to answer any of the moral quandaries it presents.
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Monday, 14 February 2011

FraudBook

DVD Review: THE SOCIAL NETWORK
12 – 120mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Aaron Sorkin
Based on the novel
The Accidental Billionaires
by: Ben Mezrich
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Brenda Strong, Joseph Mazzello, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara

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[SPOILERS] With a considerable resume which is soon to list The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake alongside Fight Club and Se7en, it is initially hard to see exactly what attracted director David Fincher to a low-key “talky” chronicling the troubled founding of social networking giant Facebook. What “poked” his interest? That answer, unquestionably, has to be Aaron The West Wing Sorkin's sizzling screenplay, which endows even the most humdrum of scenarios with pithy, staccato-timed dialogue.

A cursory glance south, however, will reveal a tick below a full house. So what denies the film The Times called a “Masterpiece” and Rolling Stone credited as “an American Landmark” from claiming a top score from the CR@B? Firstly, it isn't my loathing of Facebook, neither is it Fincher's camerawork, the dark but atmospheric soundtrack or the laudable acting. Everyone from lead Jesse Zombieland Eisenberg to Justin “SexyBack” Timberlake excel in this moody and murky character piece, but so good are the actors at portraying real arseholes that I couldn't fully connect to the drama.

The irony isn't lost on me that the most socially inept nerd who “doesn't have three friends in the world to rub together to make a forth” could create the most lucrative online social forum of all time, but right from the first shot and opening spiel of facetious, self-obsessed discourse, gawky Mark Zuckerburg (Eisenberg) repels compassion. He's tackless, cold and arrogant, and you feel no pity for him as he is dragged through court for stealing his Harvard peer's ideas for the site, and simultaneously by his (former) best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), for swindling him out of his title of CFO.

Timberlake's Napster-creator Sean Parker is, simply put, an absolute douche bag. He may be business savvy, but he's not afraid to screw anyone over to get to the top. Saverin's girlfriend (Brenda Strong) is a jealous and scary bitch with serious issues, and even Havard's principal (Douglas Urbanski) – a man student's should revere and feel support from – is a horribly uncaring and unmoralistic toad with a superiority complex, looking down of those he should be encouraging. These aren't nice people.

So there you have it folks, for all of the dual deposition drama of the framing device, the well photographed direction, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's pulsing score, and the oft-chucklesome witticisms, The Social Network *just* misses out on masterpiece status due to the rude and uninvolving personalities of those portrayed. But I suppose that's the predicament with bibliographical adaptations – and at least Fincher didn't do a Braveheart and make the majority of it up. Even if the real Mark Zuckerburg is adamant he did...


In a CR@B Shell: A glossy if talk-heavy dramatization of the exceptional expansion of an internet sensation, but for all of Sorkin's superior script work, The Social Network's warring web wonders mire the award-touted film in an uneasy ambience.
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The King Has Risen

Album Review: “MICHAEL” – MICHAEL JACKSON
Epic Records/Sony Music
Released: 13th December 2010
www.michaeljackson.com
www.epicrecords.com
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I’m sure many of my readers who actually know me away from the computer screen were surprised to not see this review much, much sooner. The first album of all-new material from my idol, the King of Pop, since 2001’s Invincible, and the first major posthumous release since his untimely passing in June 2009, and the CR@B was silent?

Well let me assure you that this much-hyped collection – simply titled Michael – has been in my collection since day one (and much anticipated for many months before then, I might add), but a number of factors held me back from analysing the tracks too quickly. Firstly, I never like to rush into album reviews because some music, particularly from established artists with heavily revered back catalogues, takes time to settle in your estimations. So as easily as I could have rushed off a review on December 14th, I chose to let the buzz settle. Secondly, there was the “Cascio controversy”… *Brace yourselves*

To summarise: An album’s worth of material was allegedly recorded by Michael in 2007 while he stayed in the company of his friends, the Cascio family, of which three tracks – “Keep Your Head Up”, “Monster” and “Breaking News” – make it on to Michael. Co-written by fledging producer Eddie Cascio and recorded in his less than first-rate home studio, the tracks caused uproar when they first streamed on michaeljackson.com due to the questionable vocals. Now, there’s no denying that Michael Jackson definitely worked on these tracks, but whether his original vocals were tampered with in post-production or gaps in his guide demo's were “filled in” by somebody else remains to be proven.

As expected, Sony Music stuck steadfastly by the track’s authenticity, but regardless of their subjective press releases, a shadow descended over the project. Excitement and joy quickly turned sour in many fan’s eyes, and I must admit that I had my doubts from the opening line of “Breaking News”, but the songs remain on the album for all to judge, and judge is what I’m here to do…

Michael Track-by-Track Breakdown:

1. HOLD MY HAND (Duet with Akon)
Written by: Allaume Thiam, Giorgio Tuinfort, Claude Kelly
From “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” through to “Unbreakable”, Michael always kicked his albums off with a mighty up-tempo number. Comparatively, this rousing ballad about the power of unity is a rather subdued choice for track one and the album’s lead single, but it was clearly a song Michael was passionate about. The demo of “Hold My Hand” leaked online in 2008, much to Michael and Akon’s chagrin, but here it is in a more polished state. Gentle and melodious, its power is in its message, but it’s hardly a song that stays with you.
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2. HOLLYWOOD TONIGHT
Written by: Michael Jackson and Brad Buxer. Spoken Bridge written by: Teddy Riley
A more appropriately memorable opening track, this beatbox-powered story of a girl who learned the hard way that fame isn’t all it’s crack up to be has been selected as the album’s belated follow-up single (due in March). Michael spits his sharp lyrics with disgust, and the song goes on a real journey, from the virtuous opening church choir to the vice of “giving hot tricks to men, just to get in”. 3T member Taryll lent his vocals to the spoken bridge, without which the song would be only half complete.
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3. KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
Written by: Michael Jackson, Eddie Cascio, James Porte
The first of the Cascio tracks, “Keep Your Head Up” is a sweet story in the inspirational vein of “Keep the Faith” about a struggling single mother who gets a job as a waitress to make end’s meet for her family. Filled with hope and climaxing with an uplifting clap-along, the song is nice without being remarkable, however doubters will not be encouraged by the sampled wooo’s lifted from 1995’s “Earth Song”.
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4. (I LIKE) THE WAY YOU LOVE ME
Written by: Michael Jackson
A curious inclusion, if only because "The Way You Love Me" (as it was then called) featured as a complete track on 2004’s compilation set The Ultimate Collection. As much as I can’t fault Theron “Neff-U” Feemster’s more dynamic and spritely production, you have to question why the Estate decided to retouch an already released song – what was wrong with the original mix? Nevertheless, "(I Like) The Way You Love Me" is a simple and harmonious ode which is guaranteed to make you smile.
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5. MONSTER (Featuring 50 Cent)
Written by: Michael Jackson, Eddie Cascio, James Porte. Rap Lyrics by: Curtis Jackson
After all my moaning, please don’t think me a hypocrite for saying this but: this song is da bomb. The second of the controversial Cascio tracks is by miles the strongest and least dubious, with a thumping baseline and stirring chorus. Another of Michael’s attacks on the intrusive paparazzi, “Monster” is a storming up-tempo beast with some witty lyrics referencing past hits (“Man In The Mirror”, “Off The Wall”, “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'”, “2 Bad”); even if 50 Cent’s delightful rhyme-packed rap does do the obvious in mislabelling the attack-track the “2010 Thriller”.
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6. BEST OF JOY
Written by: Michael Jackson
Allegedly the most recent song Michael was working on (and, some say, one he was planning to unveil at his This Is It concert run), “Best of Joy” is a light and beautiful ballad which floats and flows so freely. Twee and sugary? Sure, but with all the horrors in this world, what is wrong with a little piece of heaven? Its refrain of “I am forever, we are forever” does become a tad repetitive, but you’re in such good spirits by then that you’re too blissful to care.
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7. BREAKING NEWS
Written by: Michael Jackson, Eddie Cascio, James Porte
The track forever tainted by the Cascio hullabaloo, only because it was streamed on the official website before release and thus was the world’s first taster of what was to come. Eek. Another vitriolic song expressing MJ’s contempt at the media’s lack of boundaries and morals, it’s a shame I can’t appreciate it beyond the furore, because in truth Teddy Riley’s updated production is first rate, and the melody reminds me strongly of the dance break in “You Rock My World”.
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8. (I CAN’T MAKE IT) ANOTHER DAY (Featuring Lenny Kravitz)
Written by: Lenny Kravitz
A sample of this rocky, Lenny Kravitz-penned number was leaked to much acclaim last year, and rumour was it was a strong candidate for the lead single. Lenny has clearly funkified this new edit, but given how it was originally recorded for (but ultimately left off of) 2001’s Invincible, a certain amount of modernisation was to be expected. Additional ad-libs nabbed from “We've Had Enough” really weren't necessary, but otherwise I love it; it’s hard hitting, soaring and passionate, and the chorus is remarkably catchy.
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9. BEHIND THE MASK
Written by: Michael Jackson, Chris Mosdell, Ryuichi Sakamoto
Wow. Where was Mike hiding this funky gem for all these years? “Behind the Mask” is a reworked cover of the 1979 Yellow Magic Orchestra song of the same name. MJ supposedly loved it so much he rewrote the lyrics and recorded it himself in 1983, before leaving it to sit in his vast vault of unreleased tracks. His voice is noticeably more youthful than on the album’s noughties output, but the track comes alive with energy. This may be the reasoning behind producer John McClain’s insertion of crowd noise, which certainly doesn’t distract from the magic, and the synthesised backing vocals complement MJ’s superbly. Classic.
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10. MUCH TOO SOON
Written by: Michael Jackson
Another track from the archives, “Much Too Soon” was written by Mike for the Thriller album, but he spent literally years waiting for the perfect album on which to utilize this string-accompanied ballad. Sadly, he never he did, but the Estate have included it as a soft-yet-emotional close to Michael. At under 3 minutes, it’s far too short (much like this 10 track, 40 minute collection), but his painfully regretful vocals at missing his chance with a girl really hit home, much like how they do on Off The Wall’s “She’s Out of My Life”.
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In a CR@B Shell: An album started and inspired by the legendary perfectionist, but Michael is not strictly a Jackson album and it's doubtful it would have been released as it is if he were still with us today. Regardless, it is a gift to be able to hear the last tracks he was working on, and legacy-threatening Cascio controversy aside, there are some real gems in this brief collection.
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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Getting Blood from a Shan

Book Review: BIRTH OF A KILLER
Written by: Darren Shan
252 pages – HarperCollins – 2010
www.darrenshan.com

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[SPOILERS] As I declared in my review of 2009's Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant film, the colourful big-screen adaptation was my first (surrogate) taste of the works of teen horror author Darren Shan. So while reading the serial saga-ist’s newest published work may seem like an odd aperture into his considerable canon, let it be known that Birth of a Killer is the first chapter in a new chronicle: The Saga of Larten Crepsley.

If that name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Larten Crepsley is the vampire to whom (the fictional protagonist) Darren Shan becomes beholden in the opening book of (the author) Darren Shan’s most popular series: The Saga of Darren Shan, and given how the aforementioned filmic reworking was based upon the opening trio of books from that saga, I, too, was aware of Larten Crepsley. But Birth of a Killer (and, I would assume, the forthcoming volumes in this new collection) is a prequel to the events already told, which is why I had no quarms in diving in at the end of the beginning.

Set at the dawn of the nineteenth century and beginning when Larten is a human child on the cusp of his teenage years, Birth of a Killer wastes no time in hitting the reader hard: within the first four chapters you have already borne witness to two vividly brutal murders and a sickening display of child cruelty. Now, I understand that life back then was a world away from the unionised comfort of a twenty-first century factory – from an early age children were effectively slaves toiling twelve hour days in the most pitiful workplace conditions – but quite how suitable this kind of brutality is within the pages of a vampire fantasy novel aimed at teen readers, I’m not sure.

The book’s extreme opening certainly shocked me – and I’m 26 – but it is also important to point out that these scenes take place before any supernatural activity is even suggested; it is set in the real world and leaves more of an impact for that very reason. Soon though, as young Larten meets the vampire Seba Nile and – in a mirroring of the events in Cirque Du Freak – becomes his assistant, the novel settles down into more recognisably conventional genre territory.

Alas, conventional territory is where Birth of a Killer lingers, and even with my hardly vast knowledge of Darren Shan’s universe I couldn’t help but think that the author was playing things a little too safe. A shame, after the ultra-violent risk of the opening, but too many previously established properties – Vampire Mountain, Cirque Du Freak, Mr Tall, Murlough – are either visited or turn up along the way. An occasional reference or tip of his hat to his faithful audience I could accept, but Shan seems mired in the familiar and his latest work suffers for this lack of innovation.

Despite a large typeface and even larger spacing between the lines, Shan manages to span a good few decades of Larten’s afterlife in the lean 252 page novel. He achieves this by splitting his narrative into four parts and using the pauses in the story as an excuse to catapult forward a great wealth of time. This never becomes confusing (the story quickly catches up with the intervening months or years) but it does begin to feel increasingly bare-boned; if Larten’s rebirth is so uneventful that great chunks can be ignored, then why bother to tell his story in the first place? Let’s hope the subsequent releases in this unfledged saga will justify their creation.


In a CR@B Shell: Quarms with the predictable plot aside, Birth of a Killer is unlikely to disappoint Shan’s clan, and it’s an enjoyable if insubstantial time-filler which doesn’t ostracise newcomers. Just don’t expect a radical or revolutionary read.
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Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Devil Rides Elevata

DVD Review: DEVIL
15 – 77mins – 2010
Story by: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by: Brian Nelson
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven, Joshua Peace
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In the first in a proposed collection of “Night Chronicles”, five strangers – each with a less than honest past – are stranded together in a broken-down elevator cart within a Philadelphia skyscraper. But as the lights flicker and time creeps by without rescue, inexplicable injuries befall the restless quintet as the possibility dawns on them that one of them may be hiding their true identity… One of them may well be the devil in disguise.

From swooping and dizzying topsy-turvy sweeps of the Philadelphia cityscape to the claustrophobic confinement of the impromptu judgement, Devil is a tight and stylish little horror mystery-come-twisted morality tale. I say little not because I’m demeaning the scope of the film, but because with the credits rolling at a brusque 72 minutes, there is little room for filler in this minimalist yarn.

Not that audiences should necessarily feel short-changed, because the karmic element of the story is competently concluded and knits the various characters storylines together expertly: “Everything happens for a reason” as Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), the deeply religious security guard-come-narrator sermonizes. However, the desire for concision does at times cut short any exploration of the paranormal activity, and more could have been made of the inexhaustible concept.

With a ghostly image of a shrieking face appearing momentarily on the building’s CCTV monitor, a bandaged figure flickering fleetingly in the match-light, and one of the imprisoned (Bojana Novakovic) being inflicted with what appears to be a bite mark, it is a shame that writer Brian Nelson didn’t aspire to explore these intriguing phenomena, beyond the obvious (but hardly lucid) explanation that the devil is among us and teasing us with his power.

Furthermore, the Prince of Darkness is often frequently referred to as a shape-shifter, but we never witness this ostentatious ability, while there is no satisfying justification to Ramirez’s inclusion in the story, other than to advocate his (occasionally derisory) superstitious myth from the sideline. But then we were already aware of his beliefs from his recurrent voiceovers… Everything happens for a reason, hey?

Despite these grumbles, Devil still provides an adequately tense hour-and-a-bit, and with the writer of the fantastic 30 Days of Night adap and the director of Hollywood rehash Quarantine, there’s certainly a good genre pedigree behind the camera, even if they have previously worked from other people’s properties.

But then the same is also true here, with Devil’s idea hatched from the mind of the once untouchable M. Night Shyamalan (yep Night Chronicles, geddit?), himself inspired by the South American folktale of “The Devil’s Meeting”. So, hardly an original background to the scares then, but thank the Antichrist there’s not a mood-dampening killer plant in sight.


In a CR@B Shell: With a story as tight as the lift in which the central characters find themselves cocooned, Devil is a short, sharp, supernatural thrill ride which reaches its destination before you’ve scarcely had time to acclimatise to your surroundings.
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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Great Barrier Grief

DVD Review: THE REEF
15 – 84mins – 2010
Written by: Andrew Traucki
Directed by: Andrew Traucki
Starring: Damian Walshe-Howling, Zoe Naylor, Adrienne Pickering, Gyton Grantley, Kieran Darcy-Smith

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Despite the honking great fin and obligatory Jaws-referencing pull quote which grace the cover of Andrew Traucki's second film (and second water-based thriller), the Great White killing machine which plagues and plays with the troubled holiday-makers in this Australian survival thriller doesn't actually show up until over 43 minutes in – that's more than halfway through the film! But then, The Reef is based on true events, so the auteur's restraint in not diving straight to the shark-shaped money shots does aid the realism factor.

Of course, it is no doubt also a monetary issue, given the tight budget the low-key crew were working from. But that only makes the ever-present tension bubbling under the surface all the more impressive, as the capsized comrades make the difficult decision of whether to stay atop their sinkin' n' driftin' yacht or risk their luck in the deep blue sea and swim for the safety of land.

Effectively filmed by splicing together the close-up, shaky-cam footage of the water-treading actors with real shark shots and a minimum of post-production giggery-pokery, The Reef delivers the requisite jolts and scares despite a rather obvious tragedy-tinged plot (anyone who has seen Open Water or Adrift will know exactly what to expect). Nevertheless, the harrowing ordeal still leaves you thankful to be on dry land.


In a CR@B Shell: Chilling and authentic, The Reef may not revolutionise the underwater predator genre, but it stays afloat admirably amid a school of bigger-budgeted beasties.
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Clone Troopers

Book Review: NEVER LET ME GO
Written by: Kazuo Ishiguro
263pages – Faber and Faber – 2005
www.faber.co.uk/author/kazuo-ishiguro/

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Tender and poignant in tone, The Remains of the Day author’s 2005 Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is technically a work of science fiction, but it’s science fiction not as we know it. Any readers with an aversion to far-fetched futuristic fantasy should definately not be deterred. For starters, there isn’t a spaceship or laser gun in sight, just a stately private school and a trip to Cromer. Yep, that Cromer. It's hardly a lightsabre duel in Coruscant now, is it?

Set in an alternate-reality where human cloning has been in operation since the war, Never Let Me Go reveals the lives and loves of three close friends as they grow up and come to terms with their pre-determined destiny – to be organ donors in the fight to cure the world’s major diseases.

Set in Britain at the tail-end of the last millennium, the novel is told from the perspective of 31-year-old carer Kathy H., who, over the course of 263 pages recounts in the most vivid detail the incidents which defined her life, from growing up in the mysterious private school of Hailsham, to moving into the Cottages with her closest friends Ruth and Tommy, and on to her time as a carer for fellow clone donors.


“The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading”

To think that a Japanese male – albeit one who is now a British citizen – is so proficient at inhabiting the persona and behavioural traits of this British female through the various stages of her life is outstanding; so natural and personal is the free-flowing prose, so mottled with plausible minutiae and authenticated by Kathy’s most raw feelings and opinions. You get to know so much about the narrator and her friends via their day-to-day interractions that you begin to feel like a part of the social circle yourself.

It is to Ishiguro’s credit that the novel often feels like a stream of consciousness piece – although of course it is actually most concisely planned – with Kathy recalling and recollecting countless long-cherished anecdotes and dropping in well-placed revelations which (for our benefit) gradually uncover the truth behind the fuzzy Hailsham operation, as if we too can relate to her experiences.


“I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham…”

As Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow, so too does the tone of the novel, with sex and relationships playing a key role in their development into adulthood: arguments escalate, trusts are betrayed and resentments boil over. Kiera Knightley seems to be the perfect choice for the role of Ruth in the upcoming film adaptation, playing a character who matures into a rather snotty and sharp young woman, regularly snapping at naïve-but-endearing Tommy and sincere Kathy.

But no matter how riled up these friends get or how far they physically drift apart as their fate takes hold, the trio will forever have a place for one another in their hearts, and forever hold on to their memories of their time together. For better or worse, Hailsham – with its strict rules, stricter guardians and bizarre obsession with creative encouragement – will always cast a shadow over their lives, but it's a shadow they would never dream of dispelling. And after becoming so utterly engrossed in these tragic character's most tangible experiences, you wouldn't either.


In a CR@B Shell: Kazuo Ishiguro has crafted a fully-developed reality populated with fully-realised characters living pre-destined existences. Never Let Me Go is a compelling and moving portrait which emanates with creativity and soul.
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Sunday, 6 February 2011

"Special" Interest

DVD Review: DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS
12 – 114mins – 2010
Screenplay by: David Guion, Michael Handelman
Based on
Le Dîner de Cons, written by: Francis Veber
Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Jermaine Clement, Stephanie Szostak, Lucy Punch, David Walliams, Kristen Shaal, Bruce Greenwood
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Bandwagon-jumping, idea-nabbing Hollywood remakes of cult foreign language films are always at risk of missing the je ne sais quoi which made the originals so exceptional, more interested are they in racking up the A-list stars and splashing the budget on extravagant spectacle. But Jay Roach’s adaptation of Francis Veber's Le Dîner de Cons (1998) was in particular danger of falling flat on its identity-stealing face, given the delicate nature of the French flick’s farcical comedy.

If screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman were too gentle on the mean-spirited jibes they would be accused of undercooking the ludicrously disreputable premise, but if they went too far with the pointing and laughing they would tout controversy for picking on easy targets. Consequently, they served up a Dinner which was neither too hot or too cold; playing up the weirdness factor for easy laughs, but downplaying the discrimination by making everyone a schmuck.

Paul Rudd plays mild-mannered Tim, a promotion-desperate business man who is invited to a corporate dinner with a difference. Each employee must bring a “special” guest to the company’s annual “Dinner for Winners”, in a bid to impress the snootily bourgeois executives with the biggest buffoon they can find. See, I wasn’t joking when I used the words “ludicrously disreputable” and “mean-spirited”.

Enter Date Night’s Steve Carell as timid IRS agent Barry, a bespectacled, dead-mouse-diorama-making easy target in an anorak and slacks. A man who – for all his most well-meaning intentions – leaves a trail of utter chaos in his wake. Tim believes Barry is the perfect guest to help him win promotion from his vile, bullying boss (Bruce Greenwood), but over the course of the next 24 hours, simpleton Barry first dismantles Tim’s life, then wins him over with his kind heart and naïve virtuosity.

Predictably, the tasteless dinner provides the menagerie of “idiotic” guests – a blind fencer, a vulture lover, a pet psychic, a beard-growing champion – a chance to turn the tables on the sniggering bigots who look down on them. But for all of the over-the-top absurdities which befall the hapless characters, Carell evokes a sympathetic light on sad sap Barry, and you never catch yourself laughing at him, only with. As such, Dinner of Schmucks never offends like it might so easily have done, with every character coming off as unhinged as any other.

On a final note, the film's comedic cast is particularly remarkable, given its eccentric mixture of cross-Atlantic talent, with Rudd, Carell and The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis rubbing shoulders with the UK's very own David Little Britain Walliams, Chris The IT Crowd O'Dowd and Lucy Vexed Punch. French-born cutie Stephanie Szostak and New Zealand's Jermaine Clements continue the multi-culturally flavoured platter, while the latter's wide-eyed Flight of the Conchords co-star Kristin Shaal also makes a foreseeably kooky turn. But then kooky is the dish of the day at this Dinner.


In a CR@B Shell: Sympathy replaces cruelty in this lightweight remake which revels in its zany ensemble of Schmucks and makes fools of us all, so at least we don't feel quite so guilty about having a giggle.
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