Friday, 26 March 2010

Doctor, Doctor, I’ve Seen This Somewhere Before...

15 – 138mins – 2010
Adapted for the screen by: Laeta Kalogridis
From the novel by: Dennis Lehane
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer


When is a twist not a twist? When Hollywood has employed it so many times it becomes a predictable cliché, embedded in the mainstream cinema-going public's consciousness like a shared reoccuring dream. This is the problem which ultimately lets down the climax of Martin Scorsese’s '50s-set, noir-tinged Shutter Island, an otherwise impressive adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2003 psychological thriller set on the remote eponymous isle.

Marty’s muse Leonardo DiCaprio plays US Marshall Teddy Daniels, ferry-bound to a hospital for the criminally insane following an inexplicable breakout by one of its dangerously unhinged patients (Emily Mortimer, effectively wide-eyed). However, this isn’t the only mystery which needs deciphering as storms rage, conspiracies amount, stories intertwine and even the doctors (led by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow) and Teddy’s new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are brought under suspicion. Who can you trust when you can’t even trust the professionals?

Scorsese’s direction is assured if typically old fashioned, although Teddy’s dissonant dream sequences featuring his tragic late wife (Michelle Williams) are effectively eerie. The drama is well played, particularly by an edgy and haunted DiCaprio, and the purposefully dreary Alcatraz-esque location is bleakly atmospheric; it’s timbre enhanced by the perpetually ominous score. Unfortunately, Shutter Island's overly elaborate, multi-layered plot will lead you on a nightmarish - and long-winded - journey you’re all too familiar with, and it would have benefitted from an infection of originality – or being administered a decade earlier. As it stands it feels like an expensive punchline to a bad joke.

CR@B Verdict: Jarring, dizzying and evocative, Shutter Island is, for the most part, an accomplished work – but when a Martin Scorsese film draws thematic parallels with the appalling Joel Schumacher headache The Number 23, you have to worry about exactly who you're watching...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A Lesson in Children's TV History

12 – 6 hours, approx. - 1989
Created by: Sam Bobrick
Executive Producer: Peter Engel
Directed by: Don Barnhart (15 episodes), Gary Shimokawa (4 episodes), Dennis Erdman (1 episode)
Starring: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Dustin Diamond, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley, Lark Voorhies, Ed Alonzo, Dennis Haskins


It can sometimes be a mistake to revisit your favourite programmes from childhood as an adult, as the years – and your maturity – may not be kind to what you once revered. Thankfully, this is not the case with High School comedy series Saved By The Bell, and I thoroughly enjoyed my reunion with the gang from Bayside School, California. It fact, it was amusing how strong some of my memories of the series were: I could still give a verbatim rendition of the pop-tastic theme song, and some of the episodes were as clear to me as if I had only seen them a week ago, rather than over 15 years.

This is not to say that I am blind to the shows flaws. As likeable as the characters are, they are unashamed, hyperbolic stereotypes: Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is the cool rebel in permanent detention, Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessan) the pretty cheerleader of his dreams, Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond) is the robot-building, ant farm-keeping dweeb, perpetually rejected by socialite fashionista Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies). Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is the straight-laced, politically-minded feminist at loggerheads with new kid on the block, hunky muscle-man “AC” Slater (Mario Lopez), who also puts a crimp in Zack's style by taking a liking to Kelly. A buddy rivalry is born.

While young-at-heart school principal Richard Belding (Dennis Haskins) is the only member of the Bayside faculty to be a main character, the 25-year-old me can now fully appreciate the humorous ticks and traits indebted to the other put-upon teaching staff: hard of hearing English Lit. professor and Shakespeare enthusiast Miss Simpson (Pamela Kosh), monotonous and dryly sarcastic mathematician Mr Dewey (Patrick Thomas O'Brien), fast-talking, pop quiz-obsessed Mr Testaverde (John Moschitta). Such quirky idiosyncrasies really help to flesh out these reoccurring bit-part players, even if the purpose is generally cheap gags.

Given its youthful and impressionable target market, Saved By The Bell is also guilty of not so much presenting its lessons in teen life, more wrestling you into a locker occupied by its clear-cut morals: pranks never succeed, bullies never prosper, geeks are humans, too (even if they are named Nerdstrom, Poindexter and Geekman – bit of a contradiction, there), and honesty and friendship should be upheld over greed and fame. It's mawkish, predictable stuff.

But if you can withstand the compulsion to groan, this late 80's kid-com is also something of a mould-breaker, at times it is way ahead of its time: Zack frequently breaks the forth wall to deliver narration, exposition or witticisms to the audience at home, occasionally calling a “time out” on the action to alter the continuity by moving people and objects, usually in his favour. As if he wasn't big-headed enough, he also gets to play God!! The pink-framed dream sequences are also impressively surreal – Slater dressed in a giant lizard costume handing out ironic punissssshments to his neglectful friends following the death of his pet reptile Archie, is by far the most trippy – showing the writers were capable of thinking outside the box while delivering regimented plots.

The best episodes – “Beauty and the Screech” and “The Election” – are those with the most emotional gravitas, the least successful - “Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind” and “Screech's Birthday” – are those that stretch credibility to snapping point in order to deliver a message. The pilot episode, “King of the Hill”, detailing the first day of High School and Slater's first day in a new town, is jarringly held back until 16th in the season with only a voice-over sentence from Zack indicating it as a flashback. I am not sure why this anachronism isn't remedied for this new release.

Curiously, this 2010 boxset comprises just 16 of the 20 Season One episodes, spread across 3 discs. Given the show's age, the picture quality is hardly great, and this set – episode synopses and stills gallery aside – is basically vanilla. But what irritates the most is that the Region 1 release from SEVEN years ago contains both Season One (complete) AND Two – and is available from Amazon Marketplace for half the price of this belated Region 2 rip-off.

CR@B Verdict: Blunt, predictable and groan-illicitingly moralistic, yet cheesy enough to still provide a guilty snigger. 20 years on, fashion and trends have changed dramatically, but teens are still teens and Saved By The Bell has seen off all imitators to its crown to still rule the school sitcom genre. Just import the bargain R1 collection instead.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Quick and the Living Dead

18 – 90mins – 2010
Written and directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Stefano Colacitti, Athena Karkanis


George A. Romero has never made films for the sake of it. Despite the huge success and cultural impact of his Living Dead series, he only ever got behind the camera when he had something to say. As the years shuffle by, cultures change and cracks appear - cracks Romero could mine for biting(!) social commentary. This is why there were 10, 7 and 20 year gaps, respectively, between Night, Dawn, Day and 2005's long-awaited comeback, Land. In contrast, the latest entry in his expansive zombieverse, Survival of the Dead, is the third film to be released since his return to the saga 5 years ago. The cynical would presume the iconic visionary is simply flogging a (living) dead horse – and the fact that Survival was released straight to barebones DVD (in the UK at least) would appear to support a theory of diminishing returns – but the truth is that Survival of the Dead is the most savage and entertaining entry in the series since Day. Clearly George simply has a lot to rant about twenty-first century culture.

Survival is the closest Romero has come to a straight-up sequel, with Diary bit-parter Colonel “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan Van Sprang) of the renegade National Guard returning in the lead role. But that is as far as the Diary connection extends; the handicam technique is, thankfully, dispersed of, and a wholly independent story is told, with a distinct theme and allegorical message of its own. In the hope of finding a refuge from the flesh-eating menaces roaming the mainland, Crockett and his ragtag unit are lured to the remote Plum Island by exiled islander Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), only to find themselves embroiled in a Irish-American clan war between the O'Flynn's and the Muldoon family, who have very different opinions on how to take care of the zombie “curse”. Even in paradise, there is no escape from the dead – or the ignorant.

The zombie genre has forever raised questions about the divide between the living and the dead, but Survival draws on a myriad of battle lines: Old World vs. New World, Heaven vs. Hell, God vs. the Devil, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, fathers vs. daughters, kin vs. strangers. Therefore it is somewhat appropriate that Survival is Diary's polar opposite, leaving behind the impersonal nature of the high-tech internet age to tell a more personal and traditional “no-tech” tale – replete with dominant Western theme, horse-riding and lassos – with a modern sting. Plum Island's self-referential 'Sheriff' Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) is an old-fashioned man with outdated ideals and twisted values, who takes exception to the O'Flynn's shooting the dead, preferring to hold on to his departed by herding them like cattle, chaining them to their past lives (literally) and attempting to teach them to eat something which isn't human flesh. But can you teach an old zombie new tricks?

If I were to utter a minimal groan, the film does take its time to find its feet, the dialogue is occasionally inauthentic and some of the characters are rather loosely defined and unlikeable (in particular Athena Karkanis as blunt lesbian 'Tomboy', whose introductory scene is cringe-worthy), but once Crockett's team reach Plum Island, the film picks up momentum and gallops towards a climatic shoot-out between pea-shooters, machine guns and carnivorous teeth, which is an absolute hoot, displaying some of the most brutal and graphic zombie attacks I have ever seen. There is a large portion of quirky black humour, too, which, when the painfully obvious CG effects allow, is a raring success, and some of the most inventive ways to kill a “deadhead” (flare gun, fire extinguisher, branding iron through the- oh, I won't spoil it!!). Even after all these years of exterminating the deceased and shredding the zeitgeist, George A. Romero refuses to rest on his laurels, and Survival of the Dead is a surprising and audacious step towards a new dawn for his cannibalistic creations. I tip my Stetson to him.

CR@B Verdict: Gore, laughs, allegory, turf war, family drama and cowboys - Survival of the Dead has it all. True, it also has its flaws, but Romero has really pushed the ferry out with this bold and progressive entry in his iconic series. The Living Dead will never be the same again – and I cannot wait to see where he will take them next.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Raw Footage

18 – 96mins – 2008
Written and directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Josh Close, Michelle Morgan, Scott Wentworth, Shawn Roberts, Philip Riccio


With 2008's quick-fire fifth entry in the Living Dead series, auteur George A. Romero overcame the nagging question overshadowing predecessor Land of the Dead - how has society managed to progress technologically despite a zombie outbreak? - by resetting the diegetic timeline to day one of the mysterious plague, but updating the drama to the modern day. Which was wholly necessary given how relevant to today's society his latest social commentary is.

Unlike Land, Diary boasts no big name stars (although a number of high-profile actors and directors do make voice-only cameos as radio newscasters) and instead of the glossy digital photography of its forebearer, Diary is shot through the lens of a handheld camcorder (or, at least, that is the effect). It is edited together from footage being 'shot' by Jason Creed (Josh Close) as the meta-documentary “The Death of Death”, after filming of his student horror film is interrupted by the news of the dead returning to life. This audio-visual diary then records the struggles of Jason, his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), their drunken professor Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) and a host of their friends and fellow film students, as they make their way across state to the 'safety' of their family homes. But is anywhere safe from this global pandemic?

For a visionary director renowned for his groundbreaking concepts, it is initially disappointing to presume Diary's 'Point of View' technique is a bandwagon-jumping response to Matthew Reeve's handicam monster blockbuster Cloverfield, however this is not the case, and Diary's application of the technique is a platform for Romero to deliver a – rather heavy handed – comment on the 24/7 online community (who all strive for instant fame and information verification), and a warning of the disassociation of the lens; footage can be edited to tell (and cover up) any story and favour any party. It is telling that deaf and mute Amish farmer Samuel (R.D. Reid) – I told you it was heavy-handed – is just as clued up on the invasion as the internet-savvy students.

Despite rejigging the franchise's mythology, Diary's plot neatly progresses through a microcosm of each of the previous entries' key-themes and iconic scenes: from being holed up in Samuel's barn (Night), to spying a zombie pushing a shopping trolley (Dawn), to filling up on supplies in a renegade military unit's garage (Day), to discovering a swimming pool full of the living dead at wealthy friend Ridley's (Philip Riccio) parent's mansion (Land). And yet, as I have proven above, Diary is in no way a tired retread but a film which acknowledges its monstrous heritage and its legions of fans while bringing something new to a genre which has been shuffling around this earth since 1968.

CR@B Verdict:The concept is brave but the message is communicated rather heavy-handedly. In the Romero tradition, Diary of the Dead boasts scores of both literal and figurative brains, but it is the least successful of the series as a piece of horror entertainment.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Underland, Overland, Bonkers Are We

PG – 109mins – 2010
Adapted for the screen by: Linda Woolverton
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Barbara Windsor, Alan Rickman
(I could go on...)

Is Tim Burton mad? Well, yes: totally frickin' off his rocker (have you *seen* Beetlejuice?! Well, watch it again!), but then all the best directors are. They're still only human, however, and occasionally prone to producing weaker entries in amongst the masterpieces which comprise their illustrious filmographies (have you *seen* Planet of the Apes?! Well, don't bother). It is with a heavy heart that I suggest that Edward Scissorhands's creator's reimagining of the Lewis Carroll fairytale (and classic Disney 'toon) Alice In Wonderland falls into this most feared camp.

19 year-old Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is wistful, imaginative and takes after her deceased father (Marton Csokas); she clearly doesn’t fit in with the prim and proper society in which she lives. On the verge of an unwanted wedding proposal from snooty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill), Alice is distracted by a white rabbit in a waistcoat and proceeds to follow the well-dressed lagomorph down a rabbit hole – only to land in Wonderland- sorry, Underland, a garish and hallucinogenic world where the animals talk, dodos still exist and a civil war is raging between the beautiful White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and her volatile usurping sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, with digitally bloated bonce), with her army of playing card soldiers – a war which it is prophesised in a magical scroll Alice will end when she slays the Jabberwocky with the vorpal sword on the Frabbulous Day. Confused? Oh, you will be, as the bizarre character list escalates, the fabricated words get longer and the Underlandscape gets ever more curious and curiouser as Alice journey’s from castle to castle in the lead-up to the climatic battle… on a giant checkerboard.

Somebody fetch the aspirin...

Returning victorious to the real world, Alice turns down Hamish and addresses the gathering crowd of spectators, before talking business with Hamish’s father and suggesting they open up shipping routes with other countries. Riiiiiight. As the credits roll, Alice is bound to set sail for China on a ship called “Wonder”. D’ya see what they did there?! It’s a cloyingly twee resolution which is meant to demonstrate how Alice has grown from her adventures yet is still her father’s daughter, but I found it jarringly unexpected and wholly dissatisfying, given how only the briefest indication of her father’s line of work was in the opening conversation of the film – nearly 2 hours previous.

Clearly, it's all about the detail. And on a positive note, the film's attention to detail is truly sublime (check out the digital particles of dust and dandelion seeds which could so easily have been left out of the crisp CG world) and all the trademark Burtonian motifs are in place – demented concept? Check; nightmarish angular-branched forest? Check; Johnny Depp acting his arse off? Check. However, the one ingredient the director’s latest gothic fairytale is missing is heart, and that Underland displays in wanton excess, thanks to the theme-obsessed Red Queen. Therein lies the film's problem: there is too much muchness, but no teeth behind its beautiful big grin. In other words: Alice is a wholly shallow experience. Much like the ocularly-impaired Bandersnatch, you'll leave the cinema with your eyes aching, while your head will be more occupied with trying to make sense of the bonkers lingo than emotionally satisfied with the film’s message-laden framework.

CR@B Verdict: Visually stupendous but utterly demented to the point of disassociation, and with a weak resolution to boot. Much like Avatar, Wonderland is still worth visiting – at least in 3D – alas, Alice is not one of Tim Burton's greatest works.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Zombies are Revolting!

18 – 93mins – 2005
Written and directed by George A. Romero
Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clarke

Two decades after the dead had their Day, legendary filmmaker George A. Romero returned to the series – and sub-genre – he created, with 2005’s Land of the Dead. Since the mysterious events first depicted in Night of the Living Dead (1968), civilisation has been obliterated by the reanimation of the recently deceased as flesh-eating zombies; America has become the land of the de-composing. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the living have been forced to survive in fenced-in slums while the upper classes feign ignorance of the zombie apocalypse in the sanctuary of Fiddler’s Green, a luxury apartment complex lorded over by elitist tycoon Kaufman (Dennis Hopper).

Kaufman also financed the construction of Dead Reckoning, an armoured artillery vehicle built by Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and used by Riley and his team on reconnaissance and supplies missions. When Kaufman refuses cocksure dogsbody Cholo (John Leguizamo) residence at Fiddler’s Green, Cholo steals Dead Reckoning and threatens to fire on the high-rising haven if his $5million ransom isn’t met. Drafting in Riley – along with his burn-victim friend Charlie (Robert Joy), outcast Slack (Asia Argento) and a trio of military goons – to intersect Cholo and bring home his four-wheeled asset, Kaufman believes his troubles are over, however the “stenches” (as the dead are referred to) seem to be remembering aspects of their former lives – including how to use weaponry – and they are on the move… toward Fiddler’s Green.

Land of the Dead is chock full of blood, guts, carnage and a big dollop of trademark Romero commentary, this time attacking class society. Money has let Kaufman play God – but who is he to decide who is welcome into paradise? The real saviour of the story is honest, hard working Riley, but he is far too humble to take credit. The rich inside Fiddler's Green are as distracted by commodities as the dead are by “sky flowers” (fireworks), however the dead are advancing and becoming more resourceful than the unworldly, material-obsessed living, amassing an arsenal of weaponry and leaving a trail of bodies on their (literal and metaphoric) journey. To further the biblical allegory, the “stenches” don't need to part the waves to cross the water into the isolated city, in one of Land's grandest and most atmospheric scenes

As leader of the zombie revolt, “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clarke) is the evolution of the iconic “Bub” from Day of the Dead (1985), the zombie who showed the first signs of cerebral processes, and Land offers a plethora of other welcome call-backs to the preceding entries in the series: zombie effects supremo-cum-actor-cum-director Tom Savini, whose biker character was savagely killed in Dawn of the Dead (1978), is seen in zombie form; actress Asia Argento (Slack) is the daughter of Dario Argento, cult horror filmmaker in his own right and co-producer and co-composer of Dawn; while the story for Land was partly deprived from a unused plot for Day.

Land is the first of the living dead films to be shot digitally and feature CGI-effects (a few of which are jarringly noticeable alongside traditional methods), and there are other modern touches which make this twenty-first century outting distinctly of its time: a lesbian couple are pulled apart while snogging, a girl has her belly button ring bitten off, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright of spoof/tribute Shawn of the Dead cameo for their idol, and all manner of technological gizmo's crop up in the plot (such as the computerised interior of the Dead Reckoning, not to mention the homing device it is fitted with), which causes something of a headache for the continuity-obsessed fan* and probably explains why George 'reset' the timeline with 2008's Diary entry.

CR@B Verdict: It would be easy to dismiss Land of the Dead as the work of an ageing auteur still gripping on to the corpse of his heyday, but George A. Romero proves he still has the teeth to rip a fearsome and powerful yarn.
*If this world has been zombie-infested since 1968, exactly who has had the time, money or interest in scientific advances amid the collapse of civilisation?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Reincarnation of the Reincarnation of the Dean

PG – 96mins – 2008
Adapted for the screen by Alan Sharp
Directed by Toa Fraser
Starring: Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt, Art Malik


Having read Lord Dunsany's 1936 transmigatory novella prior to watching this recent celluloid translation, I was left wondering not only HOW it would be possible to film Dean Spanley, but also WHY anybody would want to, given the somewhat unconventional concept and the wholly limited narrative progression. It is with great relief that I inform you that Alan Sharp's screenplay – whilst being a faithful tribute to the book – expands greatly upon both the story and the characters to such an extent that it is a whole different beast – and all the better for it.

Most noticeably, the nameless scientific writer whose research comprises the novella, becomes Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam), an art publisher who weekly visits his crotchety, emotionally-stunted father, Horatio (played with cantankerous delight by Peter O'Toole), who has been unable to show affection since his youngest son was killed in the Boer War. It is at a time-frittering lecture on the “Transmigration of Souls” given by Swarmi Nala Prash (a cameo by Art Malik) that the Fisk's first encounter the eponymous Tokay-obsessed Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), whose curious canine memories hold the key to unlock Fisk Snr.'s jaded heart.

Unlike his literary counterpart, Henslowe Fisk has no ulterior motive in inviting the Dean to dinner, merely a curiosity which, over time, becomes bemused intrigue. Thus, his luring of the Dean by procuring bottles of Imperial Tokay from 'conveyancer' Wrather (a smirk-inducing turn by Bryan Brown) is less deceitfully immoral and more amicably genuine – he isn't after fame, only interesting company. And then the Dean mentions something which makes him prick up his ears...

Peter O'Toole is undoubtedly the star of the show, in a role entirely created for the film. Whether blunt and unsympathetic (“Poppycock!”), engrossed and mournful or blabbering on about his beloved childhood spaniel, O'Toole breathes authenticity and life into Fisk Snr. with a truly multi-faceted performance. Sam Neill, too, is wonderful, being given the unenviable job of bringing credence and sensitivity to Walter Arthur Graham Spanley's wild stories. Are they real, or has the dog-collar gone to his head?

The film was by no means a runaway success upon release (even Lord Dansany's novella was out of print for 30 years before the film resurrected interest), yet somehow this adds to Dean Spanley's charm; it is a hidden gem barking to be heard. Quirky, funny, original and delightful without being unrelatably ludicrous; when the emotionally-invested narrative comes full circle, only the toughest of hearts won't melt. Much like the smell of wet fur, Dean Spanley's lessons on love, life and happiness will stay with you for days.

CR@B Verdict: Alan Sharp has taken the biscuit base of Lord Dansany's novella and added fine cuts of meaty emotion to the story to create a pedigree film which is anything but a dogs dinner.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Hair of the Dog

Written by Lord Dunsany
First published in 1936 by William Heinemann Ltd.
Film tie-in edition released in 2008 by HarperCollins


Playwright, poet and novelist Edward Plunkett (published under his official title of Lord Dunsany) was most well renowned for his fantasy fiction, into which genre it is fair to say My Talks with Dean Spanley falls, for it truly is an utterly bizarre tail- I mean, tale. Over the course of the 14 chapter novella, the eponymous dean divulges a deluge of details of his supposed past life... as a dog named Wag (!) to a fame-hungry scientific writer, who dupes the religious leader into spilling the beans on his transmigratory secrets – by getting him drunk on Tokay at dinner parties.

The novella comprises of the dean's ridiculous rambles recorded verbatim (this is all in the name of science, after all), mixed with the writer's agenda-driven observational notes, making him a character in his own right. The formal and outdated prose style takes some getting used to, but it does help characterise the nameless writer – by highlighting his immoral (and surely unscientific?) ways. He readily admits to not having the Dean's wealthfare at heart; his goal being to “rob” the man of his regressive memories and publish them in a report on his “Investigations into the Origins of the Mentality of Certain Serious Persons”, therefore making him famous across Europe.

The Dean's irritatingly twee canine callbacks – including burying food to add to the taste, being beaten by his “Masters” and hunting with fellow mutt “Lion-hunter” – soon become increasingly repetitive, not only to us (indeed, only the shortness of the work convinced me to stick with it), but also to the author, who complains in his notes of the “common” and “ordinary experiences” the Dean details, in lieu of the “strange beliefs” of a “spiritual traveller.... from a past age”. In desperation, the writer invites more guests to his devious dinner parties, in the hope more Tokay will be drunk and more revolutionary secrets unveiled.

And so we reach the hallowed pay-off to these numerable talks with Dean, as the sozzled Spanley lays bare his most remarkable century-old reminiscences, revealing the truth behind canine homing skills, how they are able to sense rabies in other dogs before humans can tell, and much, much more. Except – and herein lies the moral of the story, kids – drinking glass for glass with his guests, the author blanks out and fails to remember anything the Dean has said. The same is true of the other individuals, leaving the scientific writer without any answers to his years-long studies.

Good, I say, for the in-story author was a low and despicable man who didn't deserve fame and fortune for robbing an honest – if decidedly eccentric – man of the cloth of his tipsy blathering. But did this ethical one-note twist* really require 122-pages of squandered preamble? Much like the Dean, I too feel duped into giving up so much of my time to the 'scientific' writer. If only I'd been wasted on Tokay also, the book would have been a far more entertaining read.

CR@B Verdict: So the whole point was My Talks with Dean Spanley was pointless? Wow, what a journey(!) - I'd rather have spent my time chewing on a bone... And no, that is not innuendo. Filthy mongrels.
* It is no wonder screenplay writer Alan Sharp created a new major character (and a more emotional backstory) when he translated Dean Spanley for the screen, as a faithful interpretation would fail to warrant a 90minute running time. A review of the 2008 film will follow, in due course.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Water Crazy Bunch o' Folk

Cine-review: THE CRAZIES
15 – 101 mins – 2010
Written by: Scott Kosar and Ray Wright
Directed by: Breck Eisner
Executive Producer: George A. Romero
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker


A U.S. community is ravaged by a mysterious disease which turns the affable population into senseless drones with a penchant for horrific, unprovoked attacks, leaving a small band of survivors to battle against the murderous hordes and evade capture by a top secret military force hoping to contain the terror. Hmmmm, sound familiar? Then so should the name George A. Romero, the 'Father of the Living Dead', who didn't stray far from his winning zombie formula when he co-wrote and directed the 1973 B-movie The Crazies. Indeed, he remains close to his creation still, taking on the role of executive producer on this twenty-first century remake.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is the friendly farming community left in ruins after a plane carrying a biological weapon crash lands in the outlying river, polluting the local water supply one house at a time. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) is the first to suspect all is not right in his town when cases of irrational behaviour start leaving a body count, and all the phone and internet lines no longer connect them to the rest of the world... When the US military moves in to quarantine the town and contain the artificial virus by any means necessary, David bands together with his practitioner wife (Radha Mitchell), his deputy (Joe Anderson) and his wife’s young surgery assistant (Danielle Panabaker), to evade both sets of enemies and survive the apocalyptic nightmare.

It is hardly an original concept, and yet The Crazies still packs a powerful punch. The infected “crazies” may not want to feast on your intestinal tract like the living dead do, but they retain a deadly precision to their maniacal actions (enough to be able to use a needle and thread) and the capacity for speech and thought, making them a far more terrifying adversary than an animated corpse; they know who they are hurting, yet they still continue. The uncontaminated characters are well-rounded and convincing; gutsy yet sympathetic as they battle against hope to survive a pandemic which has wiped out their town, their friends and their lives, without the actors being such giant superstars that they sway your allegiance.

Furthermore, the writers pack every scene with tension as a multitude of obstacles – and bodies – stack up between the survivors and safety, and the director never shirks away from depicting the most gruesome and appalling brutality – whether the assailant be a glassy-eyed, vein-faced, morally-depraved madman, or a faceless, unremitting military squadron who's dogma is: shoot first, burn 'em second, fuck asking questions (it wouldn’t be a Romero concept without a hint of societal critique). If I have one minor quibble with The Crazies, it's that the plot device of endangered-hero-saved-at-last-second-by-gun-shot-from-off-screen is deployed once too often, but in a film so packed with such a variety of viscerally inventive deaths (Car wash!! Rake!! Coroner’s saw!!), I can hardly grumble.

CR@B Verdict: Tense, shocking and bloody – a cut above the average schlock-fest. You'd be 'crazy' not to catch this apocalypse NOW.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Robert Langdon and the House of the Temple of Doom

Written by: Dan Brown
Published by Bantam Press
Released: 15th September 2009

Given the grand and exponential scale of commotion, controversy and criticism aimed at Dan Brown's last speculative murder-mystery tome, not to mention the renewal of interest following the release of the Tom Hanks-starring film versions of protagonist Robert Langdon's two prose adventures (the latest of which, Angels & Demons, was released on DVD to coincide with The Lost Symbol's book launch), it is hard to believe it has been over six years since The Da Vinci Code first confounded, enraged and entertained readers and religious leaders the world over. But these things take an excruciating amount of research.

Which is why it's a relief that symbologist and lecturer Robert Langdon is back in The Lost Symbol to process, question and explain all the head-scratching historical facts, fallacies and theories thrown before him, with an abundance of everyday examples (The Abyss, YouTube and Twitter help bring the ancient mystery bang up to date), although even he, at times, seems somewhat overwhelmed, cynical and stumped by the conspiracies he is expected to unravel as the tension mounts and time ticks away.

The conspiracy, this time around, is focused not in Paris , or in Rome , but in the US capital of Washington , and involves startling links between breakthroughs in Noetic science, the human mind, God and the Ancient Mysteries protected over the centuries by the ritualistic Freemasons. The plot is set in motion when Professor Langdon is invited to give a lecture in the US capital by long-time friend and 33rd degree Mason, Peter Solomon, however, upon arrival, Langdon discovers a sight far more unnerving than a restless audience.

The Lost Symbol twists, turns and twists again over the 509 pages and 12 hour period it is set, as the unsuspecting Harvard lecturer is dragged through Washington's ancestry, artwork and architecture in a complex kidnap saga in which the ransom is set at knowledge. Precisely: knowledge of the Ancient Mysteries, hidden in code on a Masonic Pyramid. In truth, the light at the top of the pyramid is nowhere near as earth-shatteringly calamitous as the theoretical secrets held by the Holy Grail or the Illuminati, but this doesn't stop Brown from ramping up the suspense with numerous allusions to the doom and “chaos” which would follow the disclosure of this case of national security.

Regardless, the outrageous plot is wholly gripping and unputdownable. If you liked Brown's previous works, this latest novel is written in the same sharp, blistering style, with the present day story punctuated by facts, flashbacks and a welcome dose of wit. At one point I feared Dan Brown had jumped the metaphorical shark (I won't spoil the scene, but you'll know it when you read it because you'll either groan or tut loudly), but I had faith and my fears were soon allayed by yet another twist in this turbulent if ridiculous tale.

I can't wait for the impending movie interpretation.

CR@B Verdict: As fast-paced, enjoyable and easily-consumable as Brown's other works, albeit far less controversial. The Lost Symbol is an inspiring, if completely over-the-top read which leaves you with a lust for knowledge and a desire to investigate all things Noetic and Masonic.