Thursday, 29 September 2011

Apes-panded Universe

Boxset Review: PLANET OF THE APES – THE COMPLETE TV SERIES
PG – 14x47mins – 1974
Created by: Anthony Wilson
Inspired by the 1963 novel by: Pierre Boulle
Executive Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper, James Naughton, Mark Lenard, Booth Colman

______________________________

[SPOILERS] Having churned out five feature films in just five years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (click the links to read my reviews of those: Planet, Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle), you would imagine that the Planet of the Apes franchise had exhausted its potential – based as the whole saga is on just one cautionary novel from French author Pierre Boulle – so the last thing you’d expect would be a television series containing nigh-on eleven hours more monkey-men storytelling!

But even with fourteen instalments, still the series leaves you hanging. Popular though it was for ITV in the UK (even receiving a repeat run on Channel 4 in the mid ‘90s) it was broadcast in a difficult slot on CBS in the US and low ratings saw it axed whilst the drama was in full swing with six more episodes written but never filmed. The impromptu conclusion sees crash-landed human astronauts Alan Virdon (Harper) and Peter Burke (Naughton) still stranded on the topsy-turvy future Earth, their fate never decided.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Forest of the Damned

DVD Review: ZOMBIES
15 – 94mins – 2006
Story by: Boaz Davidson
Screenplay by: Ben Nedivi
Directed by: J. S. Cardone
Starring: Lori Heuring, Scout Taylor-Compton, Chloë Grace Moretz, Geoffrey Lewis, Ben Cross, Craig Vye, Chris Jamba, Julie Rogers, Martin McDougall, Michael McCoy

__________________

[SPOILERS] The quintessential rule of Zombie Film School 101, obvious to any fan of the popular horror sub-genre, is that zombies are the reanimated, braindead corpses of the recently perished; lumbering, rotting cadavers with one sole aim: to feast on your flesh and slurp down your intestines like stringed sausages. They aren't your family or friends anymore, merely people-shaped shells. Shells with teeth.

By that logic, the long-departed juvenile miners in Zombies who haunt the Pennsylvanian forests surrounding the abandoned mine they were buried in 100 years previous aren’t strictly zombies at all. Heck, they don't even pass on their unearthly infliction through biting! Cannibalistic ghosts, yes – ghastly, gore-guzzling ghouls even – but not zombies; even if the petrified locals do (mis-)use the blanket term in lieu of a more fitting description. But trust interfering studio heads not to care a jot about the details, believing a film with a bold-but-generic title would sell better than one called Wicked Little Things. The fools.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Narnia's Neigh-bours

Book Review: THE HORSE AND HIS BOY
Written by: C. S. Lewis
Illustrations by: Pauline Baynes
Originally published in: 1954
HarperCollins edition printed in: 1995
175pages

________________________________

[SPOILERS] The fourth novella written by C. S. Lewis in his celebrated Chronicles of Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy wasn’t published until fifth (held back until after 1953’s The Silver Chair), and – just to confuse matters further – it is promoted to third if the fantasy saga is ordered chronologically. This is the (questionable) system I am following in my leisurely read through, having already digested prequel The Magician’s Nephew (reviewed HERE) and The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe – a story so universally revered I skipped on a review (but loved it all the same).

Contrary to the ease with which I picked up and sped through the previous entries, I really struggled to break through The Horse and His Boy’s uninviting opening chapters. I actually stopped reading it for some weeks just because it felt so disparate to what I was expecting/hoping for. Although it is set during the reign of High King Peter and his brother and two sisters (the Pevensie children), it is a very different story indeed. For one thing, it does not offer the reader a real world framework or ordinary human protagonists with which to associate, and - most bizarrely - it doesn't actually even take place in Narnia, either.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Love in the Past, Present & Future Tense

Whether avoiding pestilence in the Dark Ages, leading a go-getting career-centric life in today's metropolitan urban jungle or planet-hopping in a sleek n' sexy future-verse, one thing is guaranteed: you can't avoid the “L” word. Whether dizzyingly passionate, purely physical or some messy juncture betwixt the two, it's the universal language binding humanity together. It also handily links these three overwise wholly unrelated film reviews into one thematic whole.... sorta.

DVD Review: BARBARELLA: QUEEN OF THE GALAXY
15 – 98mins – 1968

Austin Powers meets Flash Gordon in this sexually liberated sci-fi from the swinging sixties. Classic screen beauty Jane Fonda – who at the time of production was married to the film's director – plays the title role of Earth's alluring unofficial ambassador of love (read: empowered slut) in a future where our planet is a peaceful world favouring harmony and unity over violence and war.

On a mission to locate Milo O'Shea's missing weapon manufacturer Durand Durand (pronounced minus the “d”; yes, this is where the eighties popsters got their name), our hump-tastic heroine is only too happy to sleep her way around the star system, from fur-wearing loners guarding the Ice plains to blind, confidence-lacking angels trapped in labyrinths. The self-appointed “Queen of the Galaxy” finally meets her match in an “excessive machine” – A.K.A. an orgasmotron – which she overloads with her abundant desires.

Aside from the now iconic opening credits where Barbarella strips naked in zero gravity, the rest of the monkey business takes place off screen, leaving director Roger Vadim's adap of Jean-Claude Forest adult comic book in a pointlessly neutered middle ground: too cheesy to be taken seriously as legitimate sci-fi and not perverse enough to qualify as a true erotic farce. It looks snazzy and has a fabulously glitzy soundtrack, but I'm not surprised it flopped disastrously upon release. Furthermore, a long-touted remake has time and again stalled before take off.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

Blu Review: BLACK DEATH
15 – 97mins – 2010

England, 1348AD. The country ravaged by the plague, young priest Osmond (Eddie Redmayne) agrees to leave his monastery and act as a guide to a group of soldiers searching for a far-off village rumoured to be miraculously free from pestilence and home to a necromancer who can bring the dead back to life.

Lead by no-nonsense knight Ulric (Sean Bean), the Christian questers must traverse the rotten land and overcome treacherous obstacles before they reach the remote marshland utopia. Suspicious of the god-fearing community, the knights nonetheless accept the hospitality of passive chief Hob (Blackadder’s Tim McInnerny) – but things are not as cordial as they superficially appear…

From cult director Christopher Smith (Severance, Creep), Black Death plays out the medieval-men-on-a-mission concept of Season of the Witch but with Centurion’s gritty aesthetic and proclivity for vividly violent and visceral visuals. When the soldiers reach their destination, things go all Wake Wood – but for all its clandestine superstition, Black Death has its armour-clad feet rooted firmly in the authentic.

Sean Bean’s name may head the marketing campaign and his bristled chops may dominate the cover art, but this is unquestionably Eddie Redmayne’s film. It is Osmond we sympathise with as he holds out hope that he will be reacquainted with the girl he loves (Kimberly Nixon) and the actor’s vulnerability is palpable as Osmond’s heart is broken and body weakened throughout the horrific ordeals he endures. It is this that stays with you long after the bloodshed has subsided.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

Cine Review: FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
15 – 109mins – 2011


Having already hooked up with No Strings Attached (reviewed HERE), I was sceptical of what a second identi-kit sex-com in under a year could possibly offer me; but while the Natalie Portman vehicle won the race to the box office by some months, Mila Kunis reigns supreme in the “babes of Black Swan” battle with the superior fuck buddy funny flick in Friends with Benefits.

It's by no means a clear-cut victory: for all its jovial pokes at the death of the fairytale romance via a purposefully soppy film-within-the-film starring a dopey Jason Segel, this Will Gluck (Fired Up!, Easy A) directed effort still fails to avoid the happily ever after as platonic muckers Dylan (The Social Network's Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) realise it's impossible to do the nasty without becoming emotionally invested.

What gives Friends with Benefits the marginal upper hand is in the decent chemistry between bullish exec job recruiter Jamie and her charming magazine editor target Dylan, and the fact that – even when they finally realise they are in love – their first classification of their involvement is “best friends”. It was refreshing to see that it *wasn't* the fornication which fogged their feelings but their close bond.

Much like this rollercoaster relationship, are a few missteps along the way: Woody Harrelson raises some chuckles as Dylan's extravagant GQ art editor, but he's far too in-your-face about his homosexuality to be believable. Dylan's father's (Richard Jenkins) mental deterioration due to Alzheimer's is treated sensitively, yet there are many cruel jibes made about Dylan's difficulty in grasping basic mathematics. Finally, a string of off-hand references to real life emergency landing pilot Captain Sully (see HERE) fall awkwardly flat and lead to no narrative pay-off.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

Friday, 23 September 2011

Making a Killing

Blu Review: I SELL THE DEAD
15 – 84mins – 2008
Written by: Glenn McQuaid
Directed by: Glenn McQuaid
Starring: Dominic Monaghan, Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman, Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Heather Bullock, Alisdair Stewart, Angus Scrimm, Joel Garland, Aiden Redmond

________________________

Making light work of some truly dirty dealings in much the same vein as John Landis’ tame-but-tolerable take on a true story Burke & Hare, this low budget grave-robbing period comedy – a promising debut from Irish writer/director McQuaid which pre-dates the Pegg/Serkis vehicle by over eighteen months – throws an additional ingredient into the casket some thirty minutes in when the cadavers start coming back from the dead!!

The supernatural/horror elements aren’t overbearingly dominant, but they settle symbiotically with the offbeat characterisation of immoral-but-good-natured dead peddlers Arthur Black (Lost’s Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Fessenden). However, a throwaway scene in which a peculiarly frozen stiff transpires to be a little grey man who all too quickly is beamed up to his mothership and disregarded with a shrug does feel like a frivolous step too far for the sake of a mild chuckle.

We join the story in media res (that’s in the middle of the action for all those who don’t speak Latin), with Willie having already been executed for the crimes of tomb raiding and murder. Five hours before Arthur is due to follow suit and kneel beneath the guillotine (despite his assertion that he is innocent – of the murder charge, at least), unorthodox priest Father Duffy (Season of the Witch’s Perlman) pays a visit to the condemned man’s cell and we learn of the grisly business that brought him to this point via a series of fragmented flashbacks.

As endearing as these cheeky chaps are, Arthur’s abridged life story does feel a little meandering at times (time is precious as he nears the chop, yet he considers it imperative to describe an ale-chugging contest at the local boozer to his transcribing visitor), but the alcohol-smuggling Father reels him back on focus by demanding to know more of Arthur and Willie’s clashes with rival band of enigmatic corpse hawkers “The House of Murphy” – for reasons that soon become clear…

The film’s low budget is effectively stretched with a profusion of moody, mist-shrouded moonlit locales which are creepily atmospheric if sparsely decorated, while a neat aesthetic idiosyncrasy sees a number of artistic shots and character profiles morph into comic book-style illustrations. It’s a polished touch which helps accentuate I Sell the Dead’s fundamental tongue-in-cheek absurdity, even if it doesn’t lend itself to any narrative function.


In a CR@B Shell: An affable and distinctive calling card for filmmaking newcomer Glenn McQuaid, I Sell the Dead is a charmingly lightweight post pub time-passer which outdoes Burke & Hare on laughs, even if the zombie horror component could have done with a bit more bite.
aaaaa

In the Bleak Midwinter

Cine Review: TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
15 – 27mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan
Based on the 1974 novel by: John LeCarré
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Kathy Burke, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Christian McKay, Konstantin Khabenskiy

_________________________________________

A film I had no personal interest in watching but felt almost duty-bound to see due to its stellar cast and the almost unanimous praise bestowed upon it by an awe-struck media (“Utterly Absorbing”, “A Masterpiece”, “stylish and sophisticated” – I could go on). If you’re expecting me to tow the line and brown-nose Tomas Let the Right On In Alfredson’s bum-numbing adap of espionage novelist John Le Carré’s Cold War spy drama just because everyone else has fallen under the spell of the general consensus, then click away now – you’ve come to the wrong Shack!

Some twenty minutes into this cold, drab, greyscaled game of vocal chess between despondent MI6 pawns, a group of six people sitting a few rows in front of me in the cinema had had enough and rather less than subtlety poured towards the exit. Five minutes passed by, then a second contingent of three followed suit and bailed out. Ordinarily, I would tut in disbelief at such impulsive pre-judgement, but sadly, with Tinker, Tailor… I could fully identify with their pain.

Admittedly I have not read the 1974 source novel, nor watched the Alec Guinness-starring BBC mini-series from ’77 (recently re-released on DVD, for any who care to check it out). I’m also somewhat less than au fait with the inner workings of the British secret service some thirty-odd years ago (surprisingly!!), so I can hardly claim to have been “prepared” entering the cinema. Unfortunately, such research was clearly a prerequisite to understanding a bloody thing that was going on before my shell-shocked eyes!

Headed up by the ironically named George Smiley (Oldman), a complex hunt for the Soviet mole in the British “Circus” was made all the more incomprehensible and darn near impenetrable by an overused predilection for jumping headlong into a flashback the second a character starts a recollection. Shuffle in your seat or cast your eyes popcorn-wards and you won’t know where or when you are in the ever-flitting chronology – don’t even contemplate nipping to the loo!

If you’re looking for action or excitement from your big screen experience, then forget it; screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s dense, crawling script is void of any kinetic energy, instead stocked to the gills on verbose jargon. It’s commendable, I suppose, that the film isn’t dumbed down for today’s impatient, mindless audiences, but we need an aperture into the action [sic], and Tinker, Tailor does not afford us that luxury. The mole, when he/she is finally revealed, could well have been any of the bigwig suspects for all I knew (or cared!).

Although I could appreciate the simmering intensity and nuanced performances from such cinematic A-listers as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and John Hurt, I cannot claim to identify or sympathise with any of the soulless, miserable, uptight British intelligence officers they played, all of whom – even the long retired ones such as Kathy Burke’s neurotic wreck – seem to be in way over their heads and would have been far better off with jobs of less international consequence. It’s not a job to take lightly – and, rather appropriately, Tomas Alfredson's protracted investigative drama is not a film to enter into lightly, either.


In a CR@B Shell: Commendably astute thesp work from the best in the business is not enough to save this tedious, unfathomable and overlong spy thriller from boring me to tears. Controversial though my opinion may be, it is my opinion and I can’t imagine ever wanted to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again – at least not until I’ve got to grips with the novel first!
aaaaa

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Same Time, Next Year

Cine Review: ONE DAY
12A – 107mins – 2011
Screenplay by: David Nicholls
Adapted from his 2009 novel of the same name
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Romola Garai, Rafe Spall, Ken Stott, Patricia Clarkson, Jodie Whittaker, Jamie Sives, Georgina King, Matt Berry, Matthew Beard

_______________________

Oxford students Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet – and very nearly have a one night stand – on the night of their university graduation in 1988. Emma is a quiet but sincere Yorkshire lass whilst Dexter is an ostentatious cad with an eye for the fairer sex, and yet, against all odds, a lifelong friendship is formed on that July night, one which we revisit on the same date every year for the next two decades.

As the years roll by, fashions change, fortunes deviate, jobs, lovers and acquaintances come and go, but Emma and Dex endeavour to remain in contact. Alas, sometimes life gets in the way of even the strongest bonds, and we come to fill in the gaps of the tumultuous, tragic and touching rollercoaster that is their “will they/won’t they?” relationship by way of our snapshot glimpses into these growing – but not necessarily maturing – young adults.

The fact that Danish director Lone An Education Scherfig begins her filmic conversion of David Nicholl’s bestselling novel with a seemingly innocuous bike ride in 2006 before spooling back to the catalytic first encounter, clues us in to the palpable significance of this year, so we are consciously counting down until its return with a pervading sense of expectant foreboding. Of course, if you’ve read the book you’re already prepared, but the on-screen impact is still heart-wrenching to behold.

Much criticism has been flung at Hathaway for her attempt at a northern accent, and while it does vary in its strength – occasionally even making her sound like she is imitating an upper class stereotype – it was never so inexcusably painful as to distract from the engaging love story unravelling before us. Jim Sturgess, who I had little prior awareness of, was a revelation as Dexter, a man who has a brush with small-time fame before dive-bombing into the depths of despair.


In a CR@B Shell: As a sharply-focused but far-reaching character-driven drama, One Day’s potency lies in its full-bodied and relatable individual arcs. David Nicholls incorporates the full spectrum of life, love and loss into a compassionate and authentic romance which gives you faith in love conquering all even when time pulls you in divergent directions.
aaaaa

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Rise of the Rebel Resistance

Blu Review: STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE
U – 124mins – 1977
Written by: George Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew

______________________________

“Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope...”
On a dustball backwater world oppressed by the might of a tyrannical overlord (Prowse), a young farmboy (Hamill) inadvertently intercepts a distress call from a Princess in peril (Fisher) and is thrust head-first into a galactic conflict where he must overcome great tests of strength and endurance and enter the “belly of the whale” (well, a super-deadly battle station, at least) in his hero-defining battle against evil, aided on his noble quest by a wizened old mentor (Guinness) and a motley band of courageous new friends (Ford, Mayhew, Daniels, Baker).

This simple synopsis, an exquisite redressing of the mythical and archetypal ingredients key to literary analyser and philosopher Joseph Campbell’s narrative paradigm “The Hero's Journey” (AKA. The monomyth - read more about it HERE), is the humble beginning of the biggest film franchise of all time; a globally prominent brand which has grown more powerful than auteur George Lucas (and his bankers) could possibly have imagined. Even now, almost 35years after it first hit screens as a small, unknown family fantasy flick, the power of the Force shows no signs of subsiding.

Of course, despite being the first of the series to be filmed, A New Hope isn’t technically the beginning of the story proper (the numeric denotation Episode IV may have given that away – I can't imagine how puzzled early audiences must have been reading the opening crawl), but fans would have to wait some 22 years for The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) to rewind a generation and lay the (over-)excessive groundwork to this browbeaten Jedi-less galaxy brought to its knees by a rampant Dark Side. Viewed independently, this earliest effort does a fine enough job of setting the scene and cluing the audience in to this extensively dense and colourful diegesis.

“I've been waiting for you, Obi Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but a learner; now I am the master.”
“Only a master of evil, Darth.”
Watching Episode IV in sequence makes you appreciate the retrofitting which took place with the prequels all the more. Off-hand references to the Clone Wars which sparked your intrigue when you first watched this film have now been brought vibrantly to life – even if we can now tell when “Old Ben” Kenobi is holding back the truth and telling white lies to protect young Luke Skywalker; a lad surely fated to learn the ways of the Force and wind up battling the Sith, given his bloodline.

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father”
Whereas the thickly-plotted politically-powered prequels were weakened by a necessity to cram too much in, A New Hope’s strength lies in its universal accessibility. Children flummoxed by sparring senators and legalized treaties are thrilled by daring rescues and swashbuckling battles: good versus evil in its purest form. This product of the seventies is also aided by its solid tangibility: this galaxy far, far away may be populated by all manner of kooky alien beings and flying space vessels, but it looks authentic and lived in. The CGI-heavy newer films may *look* spectacular, but they are far too glossy and, thus, far too unrealistic because of it.

Rewatching this in 2011, it's interesting to note the regression, over time, of Lucas’ sense of humour, highlighted all the more by an episodic comparison between the original and prequel films. While quirky metallic counterparts R2-D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) are hardly reserved in their idiosyncratic repartee (“Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!”), they are ambassadors of taste and decorum when put side-by-side with lumbering fool Jar Jar Binks who can’t even dismount an eopie without getting in a friggin’ tangle and squealing like an attention-seeking child!

Persistent tinkerer Lucas’ much maligned tweaks to the 1997 Special Edition of A New Hope saw the CGI addition of an extended entrance to the "wretched hive of scum and villainy" that is the Tatooine spaceport of Mos Eisley, replete with mischievous droids exchanging playful blows. It’s in keeping with The Phantom Menace’s infantile joviality, but so incongruous to the rest of this film that it sticks out like a Gungan in the Senate.

Elsewhere, the reinstated Jabba the Hutt scene remains (although it could have done with another CG update post the 2004 DVD) and George couldn’t resist further tweaks for this Blu-ray presentation, including a CGI boulder in front of R2’s cave hide-out and a different sound effect for Obi Wan to holler when he frightens away the easily startled Tusken Raiders. They’re so inconsequential you wonder why the discontented director even bothered – particularly when the image still jumps awkwardly whenever a lightsabre is activated, an issue made all the more noticeable in HD.


In a CR@B Shell: I'm not condoning his belated post-production, but no matter how much George Lucas soils the original with his ceaseless modifications, I will never tire of his iconic and beloved sci-fi classic. A New Hope is just so timelessly accessible, universally likeable, enchantingly magical and imaginatively inspiring that I could watch it time and time again – and it still isn’t my favourite of the series!
aaaaa

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Sith Hits the Fan

Blu Review: STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH
12 – 140mins – 2005
Written by: George Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Silas Carson, Matthew Wood
______________________________

[SPOILERS] It’s funny what completely arbitrary memories we retain in our noggins; snippets of this, visions of that. Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant scrap of detail can be seared into our mind's eye for years to come, yet still we’ll forget something as significant as the date of our flamin' anniversary. For the record, that has never happened to me (not yet, anyway), but I have been carrying around three small words from movie mag Total Film’s summer 2005 cinema review of the last-to-be-filmed-but-chronologically-not-final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith.

“Flawed but enthralling” I can vividly remember them summarising at the double-page review’s crescendo; just three words which I have not forgotten some six years later. Why? Heck knows – but I do know that I loved the linguistic flow of the phrase and the internal rhyme (sad, huh? But then I do have an M.A. in English literature). Also, I know that – even as a huge fan of George Lucas’ sprawling space saga – I wholeheartedly agreed with its middling sentiment and backhanded compliment.

Take the blockbuster’s opening gambit as a prime example: we are instantly stunned and in awe at the impressive and swooping mêlée amongst the stars taking place before our very eyes as noble Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his frustrated, power-hungry apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) soar and shoot their way through a throng of enemy fighters on a make-or-break mission to rescue the “kidnapped” Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid) and bring the raging Clone Wars to an end aboard Jedi-despatching droid commander General Grievous’ (voiced by sound editor Wood) control ship.

It’s an intense set-piece loaded with dark foreshadowing as the headstrong Anakin takes the law into his own mechanical hand and viciously beheads prisoner-of-war Count Dooku (Lee, in a brief return) at Palpatine’s sinister say so, and yet the gravity of this crucial turning point in the future Sith Lord’s fall from grace is completely diminished by an abundance of robot slapstick! It irked me upon initial release and it still does now; it's completely incongruous to have buzz droids and vulture droids beeping and bantering comically while R2 slip-slides in a puddle of oil when the emphasis should surely be on the confused and enraged Chosen One’s dangerous disregard for his Jedi teachings.

While the overdone frivolities are mercifully reduced and far less distracting after this chaotic and overlong first act, it’s hardly an ideal start for what is meant to be the darkest Wars of them all. Obi Wan's violent confrontation with the metal General with living organs (preempting Anakin's own transformation...) goes some way to getting things back on track, as does Yoda's (Oz) journey to help the war effort on the lush primitive Wookie homeworld, but I also found the eventual reveal of the identity of "the phantom menace" to be sorely underplayed. Another major moment, botched!

Yes, I concede, we - the ever-observant viewers - knew all along that Darth Sidious was Palpatine (McDiarmid) in a hood, but the Jedi didn’t and this was a critical blow to their cause and it highlighted an overwhelming weakness in their use of the Force. "Aren't you going to kill me?" an out-of-the-closet Sidious goads. "I would certainly like to," Anakin threatens, pacing in the hallway - before deactivating his lightsabre and running off to inform Master Windu (Jackson), as if he has all the time in the star system.

Speaking of the purple lightsabred one, Mace certainly gets the bad-ass curtain call he was hoping for as he goes mano-a-mano with the devious Sith puppet master, and chances are he would have nailed the lightening-powered old crone had Anakin not made a predictably terrible rash decision and intervened ("What have I done?!"). His subsequent re-christening as Darth Vader was far less grandiose then I anticipated, more a quick-fix off-the-cuff conversation then the grotesque ceremony I had envisioned, with Sidious giving no inclination of the reason behind his choosing of his new apprentice's iconic dark side moniker.

As the tide turns for the demoralised Jedi and Sidious sends out a call to carry out “Order 66” to all "his" clone troopers (it was he, of course, who ordered his former-apprentice Dooku to commission the Kaminoians to grow the battle-ready army ten years prior to Obi Wan’s visit in Attack of the Clones), a suitably sorrowful score-driven montage exhibits Jedi Knights being gunned down by their own men and brutally annihilated the galaxy over. It’s made all the more agonising because it was planned all along, yet the good guys are helpless to stop what they failed to foresee. The Sith are in control now; at last they have their Revenge.

We knew it would happen; this prequel trilogy was specifically all about little Ani’s rise, fall and rebirth as the evil helmet-wearing asthmatic, and his larva-lashed duel against the man who was his master on the aptly volcanic planet of Mustafar (Arabic for "Chosen One", by-the-by) is an appropriately tense, rousing and tirelessly-fought climatic affair. Obi Wan's pain at having to fight the man he loved like a brother is evident for all to witness. As he walks wearily away, leaving Anakin's scorched and horrifically disfigured shell scarcely clinging on to life, you completely sympathise with why the tortured hero finds it impossible to wield the final crushing blow; a decision he no doubt came to rue in the decades of exile which followed.

For all my earlier nitpicking, Revenge of the Sith is a fittingly extravagant affair, and there is much that Lucas does justice to in his most recent entry: the mirroring of Padmé Amidala's (Portman) heartbroken final breath following the delivery of twins Luke and Leia (see, it's all coming together now) with her husband's first laboured wheezes as the reborn suit-bound monster is effectively juxtaposed; the ultimate paradigm of innocence being extinguished as the galaxy falls under the shadow of the reinvigorated Dark Side. (And I didn't even mind the Frankenstein-riffing “Noooooo!” Vader bellows which so enraged the fan community)

Finally, the interconnecting scenes bridging the old and new trilogy at the film's impressive denouement are beautifully evocative and bring to mind the stirring magical charm so intrinsic to Episodes IV-VI (and all too often absent from these overblown, humour-laden later instalments), with Owen and Beru Lars looking out over Tatooine's inspiring double sunset, baby Luke in their arms, whilst the boy's father marches aboard his brand new Imperial cruiser in the last suit he'll ever wear, his new master and a youthful-but-recognisable Grand Moff by his side, overseeing the construction of an all-too familiar moon-shaped super-weapon. What the galaxy far, far away needs now is A New Hope...


In a CR@B Shell: The circle is complete and, boy, what a journey! There were ups and downs along the way, but Revenge of the Sith is predominantly a prodigious, action-packed final bow. I always considered it my pick of the prequels, but Clones has given it a run for its Republic credits following this Blu-viewing. Ditch the profuse slapstick, George, and you've got a clear-cut winner... “Flawed but enthralling” – I couldn't have said it better myself.
aaaaa

Monday, 19 September 2011

Scareport

DVD Review: QUARANTINE 2: TERMINAL
15 – 86mins – 2011
Written by: John Pogue
Based on the motion pictures “Quarantine” and “[REC]”
Directed by: John Pogue
Starring: Mercedes Masöhn, Josh Cooke, Mattie Liptak, Ignacio Serricchio, Noree Victoria, Bre Blair, Lamar Stewart, George Back, Phillip DeVona, Julie Gribble, Erin Smith, Lynn Cole, Tom Thon, John Curran, Andrew Benator

___________________________

As redundant remakes go, 2008's Quarantine is up there with the most pointless of them. It's not a substandard film by any stretch, it just didn't need to be made. It is by-and-large a shot-for-shot replica of superior Spanish P.O.V. zombie horror [REC], but with characters speaking in English for Western audience's too lazy/stubborn to read subtitles.

The one area in which the Hollywood adaptation differentiated from its source material was that it removed any suggestion that the zombification of the trapped tower block residents was at all sacrilegious or supernatural. When Spanish sequel [REC]² (reviewed HERE) followed that very path to a wholly surprising but no-less satisfying end, assumptions were that Quarantine 2 was a no-go; after all, it would have been impossible to suddenly piggyback onto the “demonic possession” plot and still make sense.

And so it was something of a surprise to find out that Hollywood were making a follow up; albeit a direct-to-DVD project which was completely separate from [REC]² and it's divergent mythology. Quarantine 2: Terminal, as the title suggests, moves the action away from the claustrophobic locale of the cordoned-off apartment building, following an independent group of people as they board Trans Sky Air night flight 318 from LAX to Nashville – on the very same night that the authorities take extreme measures to contain the mystery ailment in downtown LA.

Upon hearing the synopsis, I was beyond tempted to title my review “Flight of the Living Dead” or “Plane Deadly”, however the crew only remain on board for a mere 20minutes, with the deterioration and uncontrollable behaviour of passenger Ralph Bundt (Back) causing the Captain (Curran) to make an emergency landing before the petrified travellers alight into an abandoned terminal, only to discover that the exits are locked and they are isolated in quarantine...

I suppose it would have been a very short film had the crew remained airborne for the duration – the toilet and cockpit aside, how many places are there for a plane-load of people to hide from rampaging flesh-eaters? – but it couldn't have been any worse than Snakes on a Plane. My fear that without an original notion for the spread of the plague would leave Quarantine 2 no better than the glut of bog-standard B-movie genre flicks which inundate the bargain bins every week thankfully proved to be unfounded, as writer/director John Pogue has concocted a novel concept which ties in well with the original Quarantine and sets this series apart.

To say any more would diminish the twists, red herrings and double bluffs which are prevalent throughout this impressive low budget entry. But rest assured that the cosmopolitan characters are varied and have arcs all their own, while the dead-eyed, foam-gushing victims may not be the most terrifying I have ever witnessed but they do pose a very real threat to the shrinking survivor's safety. Finally, the discovery of a pair of night vision goggles leads to a proficient nod to the handheld camera technique employed in the original but dropped here; a further example of the inventiveness normally absent from such generic fare.


In a CR@B Shell: By no means a zenith in the zombie genre and not a patch on [REC]², nevertheless, as far as straight-to-shelves horror sequels go, Quarantine 2: Terminal impresses for crafting a back story all its own which ties into its derivative predecessor but doesn't rely upon it to succeed. Nifty, dynamic and expansive, this flight from hell isn't the excruciating plane w[REC]k it could so easily have been.
aaaaa

Begun, the Clone War Has

Blu Review: STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES
PG – 136mins – 2002
Story by: George Lucas
Screenplay by: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales

Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGreogor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison, Daniel Logan, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Jimmy Smits, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August

_________________________________

“A change is as good as a rest” so the proverb goes; well, there was never any chance of me defecting to another franchise, but in the run-up to last week's “The Complete Saga” Blu-ray release I had decided to rest any repeat viewings of the six films set in a galaxy far, far away, so to increase the impact of seeing the saga with fresh eyes in super-glossy remastered 1080p HD. For that reason, it had been a fair good while since I had sat down to watch 2002's Attack of the Clones – a couple of years, maybe? – and, wow, what a difference it made! A change was indeed made: a change in my opinion of this oft dumped on sophomore instalment.

Set a decade after the events portrayed in The Phantom Menace (reviewed HERE), Episode II is set in a much changed galaxy: The Galactic Republic is in crisis as an ever-growing Separatist movement – led by former Jedi Count Dooku (screen icon Lee) – peels away from the pack and leaves harmony in jeopardy: they could attack the remaining loyal star systems at any moment, and the Republic - even with protectors of the peace, the Jedi Knights, on their side - do not have the military force to counteract such a threat. What they need is an army all their own – but will the Senate ever vote for such a revolutionary proposal?

With Senator Padmé Amidala's (Portman) safety at risk, Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid) requests she be placed under the protection of Jedi Knight Obi Wan Kenobi (McGregor, replete with ginger beard) and his brilliant-but-willful padawan, Anakin Skywalker (Christensen). A further attempt on the former Queen of the Naboo's life sees the bodyguards separated as Obi Wan follows the trail of the bounty hunter responsible to a surprising revelation on the ocean world of Kamino, while Anakin opens up to the girl he has dreamed of since their first encounter on Tatooine ten years previous...

If we are to compare middle episodes, then, obviously, Clones doesn't hold a lightsabre to saga-pinnacle The Empire Strikes Back. Nevertheless, there is much to love about this all-too-quickly derided picture: from the atmospheric opening as the Senator's sleek cruiser tentatively punctures the mist above Coruscant, to the explosive final battle as a Geonosian ampitheatre plays host to the start of the Clone Wars. Sandwiched between these two events is a high-octane speeder chase admist Coruscant's bustling skyscape, Obi Wan faces off against the under-suspision Jango Fett (Morrison) on a rain-lashed landing platform, Anakin vents his rage at a entire camp of Tuskan Raiders, a droid Assembly Line makes for an inspired makeshift arena, and the diminutive Master Yoda (Oz) finally gets to kick some ass with a lightsabre!

Even the film's biggest detractors cannot deny that the expertly choreographed set-pieces definitely impress. Unfortunately, it is in Clone's quieter moments that its flaw manifest themselves: Anakin and Padmé's forbidden love feels horribly forced and fails to convince, primarily because of Padmé's ridiculous about-face concerning her “true” feelings towards an almost sinisterly-arrogant man who she hasn't seen since he was nine years old! Furthermore, it is hard to believe that anyone could fall so hopelessly in love with a guy who comes off more than a little strong (“When I'm around you my mind is no longer my own”) and more than a little stalkerish (“I've thought about her every day since we parted”).

Many a critic has bemoaned the ensemble cast's wooden delivery of some rather clunky dialogue (he may have had a hand with the screenplay this time around, but George Lucas is renowned for it; he's not an “actor's director”), but I found watching the film with the subtitles on – a recent tendency I have come to miss when a DVD doesn't have subtitle tracks – made me appreciate the intricacies of the script over “Manakin” Skywalker's (thank you, Clerks II) leaden articulation. “Don't worry, R2 is with us” is one such off-hand witticism the then-newcomer absolutely destroys by saying it like he is reading it off the page for the very first time.

Picking up on further intricacies, Lucas makes many much-appreciated nods back to the Original Trilogy, helping to ingratiate this prequel into the entire saga. Be it major details such as the Geonosian's passing of the Death Star plans onto Count Dooku, Anakin's first step between man and the machine he will one day become in the form of a mechanical hand, or even something as brief as Jango banging his head on the door to Slave I (a retro-fitted trait his clone army retain in the now iconic blooper in 1977's A New Hope), these all help to feed into the franchise's ever-expanding legacy and help people to view the saga as one long film rather than six individual segments.

Whilst Episode I's humour was embarrassingly juvenile, frequently toilet-based and often given to bumbling clown Jar Jar Binks (Best, who returns in a much reduced role here), the majority of laughs in Attack of the Clones come courtesy of some dryly sarcastic wit (“Then we decided to come and rescue you,” Anakin fills in his master. “Good job!” deadpans Obi Wan, motioning to the chains which bind his hands to the arena's podium) and some genuinely chucklesome – though admittedly far-than-subtle – camp quips from goldenrod C-3PO (Daniels, in his fifth appearance) which nicely counteract the conflict raging around him without reducing Star Wars to a farce (“I'm quite beside myself”).


In a CR@B Shell: So, the Chose One has shown a less-than-appealing side to his nature and betrayed his allegiance to the Jedi Code, while a grand army of clones has risen to combat the growing Separatist threat and war has engulfed the galaxy – when faced with such beautifully rendered and bombastically entertaining spectacle I can forgive the occasional awkward delivery of dialogue and even an overtly elaborate plot. Attack of the Clones: in the eyes of this CR@B, you are reprieved.
aaaaa

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Swamp Meat

Blu Review: HATCHET 2
18 – 85mins – 2010
Written by: Adam Green
Directed by: Adam Green
Starring: Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Parry Shen, Tom Holland, R.A. Mihailoff, AJ Bowen, Alexis Peters, Ed Ackerman, David Foy, Colton Dunn, John Carl Buechler

___________________

Following immediately on from Hatchet's abrupt mid-scene conclusion [sic], Danielle Harris steps into Tamara Feldman's sodden shoes as lone slaughter survivor Marybeth Dunston in this sick slasher sequel to Adam Frozen Green's retro-inspired cult splatter hit – a small-but-cocky film which prided itself on not being a sequel, a remake or “based on a Japanese one”, but now seems to be the start of an irrepressible franchise (Hatchet III is due next year, and there's the inevitable talk of it being shot in 3D).

An expansion to “hatchet-faced fuck” Victor Crowley's (Kane Friday the 13th Hodder) tragic legend starts things off promisingly by giving reason to the seemingly senseless murder of Marybeth's father and brother at the start of the 2006 original, while reciprocally giving purpose to Tony Final Destination Todd's eccentric junk-hawker Reverend Zombie, whose gravel-voiced character is granted a lot more screen time after his blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo last time around.

Convinced by a jaded but resolutely determined Marybeth to almost immediately return to the Louisiana swamp she only barely escaped from alive mere hours before (with a less-than-sound excuse to collect the bodies of her slaughtered kin and, if he's hanging about and actually can be killed, exact revenge on the deformed bayou butcher, too), Zombie rounds up a gang of gun-totin' red neck 'ard nuts to join the suicidal expedition, under the pretence that they are heading into Crowley's murderous haunt simply to bring back Zombie's tour boat which his inexperienced assistant (Parry Shen) lost on Marybeth's less-than-rosy first trip.

It is here that Hatchet 2 picks up the pace and returns to safe/predictable territory, with the group of boorish, uncharismatic stereotypes (one of them is even called Cleatus for gawdsake!) being picked off in ever-more imaginatively twisted manners. If depraved bloodshed with a self-aware wink to the audience is all you crave then Adam Green more than delivers with this second swing of the axe, but I found it disappointingly unprogressive, as if the young writer/director simply chose the safe “more of the same” route after realising how much money – and fame – he garnered from the first iconic schlockbuster.


In a CR@B Shell: It's a shame that the neat additions to Victor Crowley's mythology weren't simply interwoven into the undersized original as they would have elevated that out of predictability and saved us from watching the exact same film all over again. Hatchet 2 delights in gleefully warped and ever-more extreme carnage, it just carries the unmistakable stench of unnecessity along with it.
aaaaa

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Pussay Patrol

Cine Review: THE INBETWEENERS MOVIE
15 – 97mins – 2011
Written by: Damon Beesley and Iain Morris
Directed by: Ben Palmer
Starring: Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Emily Head, Laura Haddock, Tamla Kari, Jessica Knappett, Lydia Rose Bewley, Theo James

__________________________________

Will (Bird), Simon (Thomas), Jay (Buckley) and Neil (Harrison) – those four lovable bumders from E4’s hit high school sitcom – have graduated from the small screen and from Rudge Park Comprehensive. But before these hapless boys become men and either take themselves off to Uni (in Simon and Will’s case) or set up a business alongside Rio Ferdinand selling car stereos to the rich and famous (as perennial bullshitter Jay outrageously suggests), there is still one more rite of passage for them to complete: a lad’s holiday.

It’s almost a cliché, such is the expectation that every big screen spin-off (or holiday special) of any TV soap or sitcom simply must make the most of the larger budget and longer running time by taking its clutch of well known characters out of their familiar suburban comfort zone and giving them a new lease of live abroad: Bigger. Better. Bawdier.... err: brighter?

Series creators Beesley and Morris deliver just that by packing the socially awkward teens off to Party Island central - the throbbing coastal resort of Malia in Crete - for two weeks of sun, sand, sex, booze, girls, sex, girls, sun, booze and… sex. With Jay’s recently deceased grandfather’s inheritance in their pockets (and other less accessible places), it’s time for the self-appointed “Pussay Patrol” to leave their school-day reputations behind them and go on the prowl – pity their hotel is a shithole, then, and mopey Simon is still hung up on on/off sweetheart Carli (Head).

They may now be eighteen, but don’t expect these vulgar oiks to have grown up since their disastrous camping trip at the tail-end of series three. The Inbetweeners Movie is still rammed to the gills with more crass, vapid banter than you can shake your love stick at (well, except Jay, who’s somewhat less than gifted in the trouser department – as we all very visibly discover). There’s also a fair helping of heart to cushion the off-colour but harmless humour as the unlucky-in-love quartet try their best chat-up lines on a group of British girls who, much to their astonishment, don’t run away at the first opportunity. Get in!

The karmic conclusion does strain credulity somewhat – there’s clearly a female equivalent for each member of the group; the likelihood of that happening in real life incredibly slim, while the supporting characters (including Carli and hotel rep James) are all made out to be obnoxious arseholes to make the core four more likeable – but you’ll be laughing too much to care. The broad gags are pleasingly consistent throughout (highlights being the sorry attempt at dancing up to the girls in an empty nightclub and head of sixth Mr Gilbert’s less than poignant farewell speech) as, rather worrying, is the amount of male nudity on show…


In a CR@B Shell: If you’re a sensitive soul then this riotous swear-fest is not for you, but beneath the boasts and bravado, these uncool kids are an endearing bunch and it’ll be a shame if this feature length adventure really is the series’ final send-off – but a least they made the most of a holiday from hell and doggedly refused to go home miserable. Chances are you won’t either.
aaaaa

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Light(er) Side of The Force

Blu Review: STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE
U – 136mins – 1999
Written by: George Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Brian Blessed, Samuel L. Jackson

_______________________________

Having deliberately held off a re-watch of my all-time favourite space saga for some months in anticipation of the hotly-anticipated nine disc “The Complete Saga” Blu-ray collection (released Monday), to say I was a little miffed at Amazon when they failed to deliver my long-held pre-order on the day of release is something of a bantha-sized understatement. What, I ask you, is the point of pre-ordering – and, supposedly, guaranteeing – such an in-demand release when I could have nipped down the road and picked it up from Sainsburys both quicker and at a more competitive price? My confidence in the online giants has been rattled – but that is a rant for another blog.

To watch the saga in release order or chronological order? That is the question, and, as the focus of this first review is Episode I, those of you who were paying attention will have already guessed my answer. I can scarcely believe that the opening instalment in the “new” Star Wars trilogy is already 12 years old (where has the time gone?), but so ingrained in the public subconscious is it that George Lucas' fantasy opus is never far from the forefront of people's awareness – and thus, so very hard to forget (either for the right or wrong reasons).

Visually, The Phantom Menace has held up magnificently – not that 1999 is all that long ago, but special effects have come on leaps and bounds in recent years – and this Blu-ray remaster is striking in the sharpness of the film's many exotic locales; from the lush greens of the Naboo grasslands to the opulence of Queen Amidala's (Portman) Venetian-style palace, from the bleached white seas of Tatooinian sand to the ethereal elegance of the underwater city of Otoh Gunga. Oh, and Yoda's (Oz) now CG, too. Lucas' vibrant aesthetic choices no doubt purposefully parallel the lighter and more hopeful mood of this opening episode: the “Chosen One”, Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), has been found by the Jedi and is to start his training which will bring balance to the Force (well, that's the plan at least).

Given this tonal luminance, it's no surprise that some of the characters are more - how should I put it...? - playful, too (I bet you can guess what's coming now). For all the critical uproar, I personally never minded Gungan oddball Jar Jar Binks (Best) back in the day, but his ignorantly destructive blundering did start to wear a little thin on the 27year-old me. I think it's his ever-presence which is to fault; had he been in fewer scenes and played the clown less frequently, I think a greater number of the more mature audience would have been less offended by his "wude" and exhausting exuberance.

Yes, yes, before you jump down my throat, I am well aware that Star Wars is essentially a children's action-adventure series, and I'm sure plenty of kid's were rolling in the aisles at Jar Jar's uncoordinated antics and cheering as the little slave boy single-handedly beat the bad guys without completely bending the rules (“Qui-Gonn said to stay in the cockpit, so that's what I'm gonna do”), but quite how many of them understood an iota of The Phantom Menace's political-fuelled plot? It seems something of a contradiction to have frog-men stepping in poo-doo in one scene, only for senators to be discussing a vote of "no confidence" against the Supreme Chancellor (Stamp) in the next.

It is this schizophrenic attitude which is The Phantom Menace's biggest undoing; Lucas was clearly attempting to appease fans both young and old, old and new, but the balance is off. Those that comprehend the political implications and intricacies of the twisty, planet-hopping mission against the Sith-puppeteered Trade Federation will roll their eyes at the juvenile humour, while those that snigger at the hapless ineptitude of a tongue-tied alien will grow bored the minute the podrace stops and the lightsabres are switched off.

It certainly struck me that the film's second hour is more focused and tense than the muddly first. Once the exhilarating-but-frivolous padding of the Boonta Eva podrace has left the pudding-basined wonderkid in Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn's (Neeson; exuding a calm confidence) care and they head off to the concrete metropolis of Coruscant to fight the enbattled Nabooian's cause, the film tightens up on its way to the entertaining home straight.

The end line, of course, involves one of the coolest characters in the entire saga: deadly horn-headed Sith Apprentice Darth Maul (Park). Dispatched by his eponymous hooded master to aid the useless Trade Federation and quash the Naboo revolt, tattooed Maul faces up to Qui-Gon and his padawan Obi Wan Kenobi (McGregor) in an electric three-way lightsabre battle, set to John William's thumping score “Duel of the Fates”. The choreography is jaw dropping and the action is thrilling and intense and it leaves a lasting impression in a way the rest of the film - for all its try-hard effort - sadly fails to do.


In a CR@B Shell: Fanboy though I may be, I'm not blinded to The Phantom Menace's faults; but I'm also not narrow-minded enough to disown a vital piece of the Star Wars jigsaw. Bogged down in weighty diplomacy whilst simultaneously striving to entertain the tots, this discordance may leave Episode I slightly unsteady at times but it doesn't derail the iconic franchise and has many reasons to be given a second chance.
aaaaa

Monday, 12 September 2011

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This...

Event Review: NORWICH SCI-FI CONVENTION 2011
11th September 2011
University of East Anglia
http://www.nor-con.co.uk/

__________________

Having raised questions about my feelings towards East Anglia's topmost celebration of all things sci-fi and fantasy following last year's "Nor-Con" (reviewed HERE), I must have been glutton for punishment by getting my hopes up that 2011's event would be any better. But with Craig “Lister” Charles, Robert “Kryten” Llewellyn and Danny “Cat” John-Jules all confirmed as guests, I was nigh-on ecstatic about the opportunity to complete my Red Dwarf autograph collection following last year's meetings with Chris “Rimmer” Barrie and Norman “Holly” Lovett (both of whom were also in attendance again this year).

The first blow of the day came as we were about to enter UEA's LCR when I was pre-warned by my friend (and fellow blogger) Mr. Downie that star guest Craig Charles had pulled out at the eleventh hour due to “work commitments and contractual obligations with the BBC”. Now, we all know that Mr Charles is currently playing cabbie Lloyd in Coronation Street (though that literally is the extent of my knowledge), but Corrie is on ITV, so unless the organisers got the wrong channel, it sounds like a pretty poor excuse to me. True, Red Dwarf once was a BBC production, but they long ago gave up on the show and it has since moved to Dave. And besides, why on earth would "Lister" have been called in on his own when the rest of the cast were still able to fulfil their Nor-Con obligations?!

Tickets had apparently sold incredibly well for this year's event (up 300% on last year, according to the website), and the difference in numbers was noticeable from the minute we entered the bustling main room. Of course the LCR is hardly Wembley Arena, but it was still good to see that word was getting out (this is, after all, all for charity). Unfortunately, the traders, stalls and menagerie of costumed look-a-likes were all essentially identical to last year and within 10minutes we had snooped and perused the overpriced merchandise as much as we possibly could.

Moving into the venue's second room (just off from the restaurant and vending machines) where all the “meet and greet”s take place, Chris Barrie once again had a colossal queue while everyone else was lucky to have one or two people waiting to speak to them. It all looked worrying similar to the year before – we even wondered whether Chris and Norman were still wearing the same shirts! Illogically, Robert Llewellyn – who you would have considered to be a huge draw given his Twitter popularity, not to mention his online Carpool's (now showing on Dave, too) and his time on Scrapheap Challenge – was not even in this room but squeezed between traders in the busy main hall, where most people either walked straight by him, or couldn't get passed the crowd of people milling about!

More worryingly still, the place reserved for Danny John-Jules was filled by a replica Dalek – and no-one had any idea where the hell he was! It transpired that he was “held up” at a motorbike show and was therefore no longer coming – what a let down! My dreams of seeing all the "Boys from the Dwarf" was destroyed: having already met two last year, the only acquisition to my autograph collection was "Kryten" – and he was charging a rather hefty £15 a go (not for charity, I might add)! I realise that sometimes things crop up, it's unavoidable, but for two of the day's biggest guests to either pull out ridiculously late or simply not turn up is frankly appalling and I, for one, was hugely disappointed and felt somewhat cheated out of my £9 entrance fee.

Following a half hour "Celebrity Lunch Time", I was hoping that the “Red Dwarf Q&A” - planned for 1:30pm on the main stage - would lift my spirits, but after being kept waiting for some 20minutes (on top of the 25 we'd already waited to guarantee a good view) while they belatedly finished their lunches (what were they eating, a three course meal?!), I was less than impressed by the amateurish organisation which left Norman Lovett without a microphone and Chris Barrie with earache after his mic had a bad case of feedback. With “Matt Smith” on question duty, the embarrassment continued as Chris Barrie was asked an era-hopping question about Torchwood's Carptain Jack Harkness – a character he had never heard of and needed much assistance in placing.

We left pretty soon after that - before Robert Llewellyn had even answered a question - having realised that for all the organiser's good intentions and boasts of a “bigger, better” event, 2011 did not live up to 2010's less-than-stellar expectations. I guess that without the novelty value of last year's first time (which, lest we forget, brought us “Darth Vader” eating a ham salad and me chastising “Holly” for munching on a digestive), Nor-Con's faults were laid bare, expounded by the disappointment of unreliable celebrities. I'm sad to say that it would take a major celeb at next year's event to get me to even consider going again – but even then they probably wouldn't bother turning up!

Rebirth of the Dead

DVD Review: WAKE WOOD
18 – 86mins – 2011
Story by: Brendan McCarthy
Screenplay by: Brendan McCarthy and David Keating
Directed by: David Keating
Starring: Aiden Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall, Ella Connolly, Ruth McCabe, Brian Gleeson, Amelia Crowley

_____________________

[SPOILERS] I couldn't help but smile at the irony that a film with a tagline warning “The Dead Should Not Be Woken” was the comeback feature of long-in-hiatus genre studio Hammer Films. 30 years after their last production, would the former masters of the macabre come to rue their very own reawakening?

Fortunately, The Wake Wood (as it was originally called before they dropped the definite article) garnered critical commendation upon its March release, even if that date was, rather worryingly, some 18months after it first premiered at a film festival (never a good sign). Overshadowed though it may have been by Matt Reeve's vamp remake Let Me In and the more star-studded (but similarly short-changed) The Resident, I was still eager to see what all the fuss was about with this low budget Irish resurrection chiller.

Relocating to the eponymous rural village (spelt, strangely, as one word rather than the two of the title), husband and wife Patrick (Gillen) and Louise (Birthistle) are still struggled to come to terms with the horrific death of their only child, Alice (Connolly), who was viciously mauled to death by a savage dog. After their car breaks down one night, they stumble upon Patrick's boss's remote cottage. Hoping for a phone, they are shocked to overhear a creepy pagan ritual taking place in his back yard; a ritual which brings the dead back to life. Wakewood, they have discovered, is not like other villages...

Patrick's uncanny boss, Arthur (Spall), offers the grieving couple an opportunity they cannot refuse: the chance to see their little girl again, alive and in the flesh – but only for three days, after which time she must “return to the wood”. Overjoyed at the chance to say a proper goodbye to their much-missed daughter, everything seems to be going fabulously – but happiness doesn't last forever, and Alice doesn't want to be left alone in the ground again...

There's more than a shade of Don't Look Now in Wake Wood's DNA, not only in the theme of premature death and grieving parents (and the fact that Alice wears a mac – albeit not a red one), but also in the quirky editing, with director David Keating borrowing Nicholas Roeg's iconic unchronological flitting technique to not only contrast the before, during and after of the tragic catalyst, but also during a sex scene. It's a rather unsublte homage to say the least.

Unfortunately that is where any comparisons to the 1973 Daphne Du Maurier adaptation end, as innocent little Alice develops a devilishly sinister side, which sees her disappear into the night with makeshift weapons in hand. If the Roeg riffing was unsublte, then Keating's overuse of the claret stuff is just plain indulgant. I was left with the suspicion that the producers were worried that without a bone-crunching groin crush here or a dog skinning there, Wake Wood wouldn't even qualify as a horror, so they took the gore to hyperbolic extremes and tagged on a permanently jangling musical score to give the film the impression of tension.

Don't get me wrong, it is an effective score (reminding me of the eerie library music in Ghostbusters - with added cowbells), but it was ultimately counteracted by Wake Wood's lowly budget, which shone through far too brightly in the tones of every shot; the whites too garish and the blacks not black enough. At times it looked like an amateur production.

Ella Connolly, too, didn't quite nail her crucial role as the resurrected Alice. She's only young, so I feel kinda bad for critiquing, but not once did she creep me out or give me the impression that she was ever truly a threat to the villagers. Her wide-eyed gaze looked wholly indifferent throughout whether she was hugging her mummy or impaling a poker through the neck of her neighbour.


In a CR@B Shell: The critics seemed to love it, but I failed to be impressed by this cheap-looking Don't Look Now for the noughties. Excessive money shots just added to Wake Wood's feeling of tacky desperation, and even Timothy Spall couldn't elevate this beyond straight-to-DVD status. So *that's* why they kept it on the shelf for 18months...
aaaaa

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Break In, Break Out & Break Apart

Now that I'm back with LoveFilm (oh how I've missed you, promise me we'll never be apart again, etcetera), the rate with which I receive and watch films has increased - and therefore so has my review load. So here are three concise critiques which see Russell Crowe break into a prison, eyeless reanimated beasts break out of the earth and the ghost of a deformed madman breaking people apart. Now there's diversity for you...

DVD Review: HATCHET
18 – 82mins – 2006

A host of retro splatter film icons (Tony Candyman, Final Destination Todd, Robert “Freddy Kreuger” Englund, Kane “Leatherface”, “Jason Voorhees” Hodder, Friday the 13th Part VII director John Carl Buechler) and some sensationally cruel death sequences (people pulled apart, a girl taking a sander to the face, a woman split in two from the jaw down) do wonders to cover up a simple one-dimensional plot in this gleefully twisted love letter to old-school American horror films from up-and-coming auteur Adam Green.

It’s a glossy production for sure; the image is much cleaner than the grittier and more plausible Frozen (Green’s other major horror release, reviewed HERE), while the camera never shies away from the buckets of gore and twisted prosthetics. The humour is also snappy and tongue-in-cheek (“Can you spot me for this?” “Why, you out of money?” “Nah, I just refuse to pay for this shit!”), while the short runtime means things never outstay their welcome (particular not the all-too-sudden mid-scene cut at the end).

The only downside is that the linear storyline is far too conventional: as the motley crew of tourists, wannabe porn stars (really), camera men and sullen locals board a dodgy haunted swamp tour on the Louisiana Bayou, you can instantly predict who will survive and who will make tasty cannon fodder for the ghost of maniacal and mutilated Victor Crowley (Hodder), whose legend is far more real than any of the unsuspecting saps suspect…

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

DVD Review: THE NEXT THREE DAYS
12 – 135mins – 2010

Not a film I was in any great hurry to see (hardly the right attitude, I know, but I’ve got to be up front), but having been handed a copy with a strong recommendation I thought I’d give it a chance. As I suspected, I can’t claim to ever being enraptured by it, but it’s an adequate-enough thriller, if a little overlong, implausible and somewhat predictable once you’ve read the synopsis. Hardly a glowing reference, is it?

Paul Casino Royale Haggis adapted and directed Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks in this remake of the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle (Anything For Her). Following an altercation at work, Lara (Banks) and John (Crowe) Brennan’s house is intruded by police and Lara is arrested for murder. Over the course of the next three years all appeals fail and John slowly becomes obsessed with the notion that the only way Lara will ever get out to see her son (Insidious' Ty Simpkins) grow up is if she is broken out of prison. So starts his criminally far-fetched plan…

At over 2hours in length, I was surprised at how much of the plot was crammed into the first all-too-brief scene, while John goes from inept novice to fugitive genius all-too-quickly. Much like him, we never for a second suspect that Lara is actually guilty, but that doesn't stop the police from being as incompetent as the “miscarriage of justice” plot demands. The film’s major failing, however, is in its pace, which covers “The Last Three Years” in a snowballing flash before defrosting at a crawl as the plan nears fruition in “The Last Three Days”.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

DVD Review: THE PACK (LA MEUTE)
18 – 81mins – 2010

A misty, murky and mysterious little French horror which does a grand job of challenging your genre expectations by changing course thrice during its succinct duration. What begins as an off-kilter road movie – goth traveller Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) picks up grubby hitchhiker Max (Benjamin Biolay) and they stop at a ramshackle truck stop owned by hick matriarch La Spack (Yolande Moreau) – descends into hillbilly torture porn in a Wrong Turn vein before the eponymous creatures are unleashed to wolf down some revitalizing human plasma in a tense “man versus the monsters” climactic stand-off.

The blind, soil-dwelling zombie miners are a wickedly gruesome bunch (think The Descent’s Crawlers morphed with Romero’s lumbering Living Dead-ites) but they are criminally underused – Franck Richard’s film spends so much time detailing Charlotte’s hunt for the missing Max, her off-hand statement to the retired eccentric local sheriff (Phillippe Nahon; so far removed from your expectation of law enforcement that he may as well be in La Horde) and her eventual capture, that the blood-thirsty mole-men only show up once in the entire first hour.

Finally, a nifty attempt at a curveball epilogue works really well at taking the story full circle (and being startling and just a little bit freaky all at once) until that old chestnut of “it’s just a dream” decimates the impact and makes the diversion feel more like a disjointed deleted scene which has accidentally been edited into the main feature by mistake. It makes for a crushingly disappointing finale to what should have been the most crucial scene in the film.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa