Thursday 29 April 2010

Bio Shocker

18 – 99 minutes – 1973
Story by: George A. Romero

Screenplay by: Paul McCollough and George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lyn Lowry, Richard Liberty, Richard France, Harry Spillman, Will Disney


A couple of burning bodies, a knitting-needle attack and a totally unnecessary incestuous rape (best leave that one there...) cannot hide the fact that George A. Romero's original stab at The Crazies (1973) is rather heavy on talk and light on craziness. Indeed, there are so few on-screen examples of unprovoked violence from the biologically-infected citizens of Evans City, Pennslyvania, that you feel absolutely no threat from their slightly spaced-out mood swings. In contrast, the men in uniform brought in to keep the town under control are a shouty, blundering and terrifying mess of crossed wires, macho bravado and total ignorance who couldn't take charge of a bustling school hall. Okay, point taken: the army are the enemy here, but in truth, the filmmakers are hardly innocent either.

Romero wastes no time in getting stuck into an explosive opening set-piece – the first case of infection sees a man murder his wife and set fire to his house while his children are inside – but following this dramatic introduction, the action then slows to a crawl as the clueless but commanding military unit move into the quarantined town and round up the unsuspecting citizens in the most undignified manner. All of the exposition is spoken rather than shown (the catalytic, virus-carrying weapon “Trixie” was aboard a plane which crashed into a river, infecting the water supply) and the majority of the violence is people being gunned down. Repeatedly. Which gets old rather quickly and only aids to highlight the lack of a budget for this lo-fi B-movie.

I am usually very forgiving when it comes to my favourite cult horror director balancing allegorical ideas with pitiful resources (the dodgy CGI in Survival of the Dead (2009), for instance), alas, a lack of innovative, realistic or frightening effects isn't the only issue I have with The Crazies. All the neccessary ingredients are present – social commentary, fake blood, impending apocalypse, faceless enemy – but they have been mixed horrendously into an unsuccessful and riotous hodge-podge of a “horror” which fails to live up to its potential. The Crazies is neither scary nor thought provoking, simply amateurish, and it is no surprise that it is one of the legendary auteur's lesser known works.

There is never any tension in the linear, undynamic plot, the script jumps about so often that you never have time to care for any of the lead characters, and all the big plot points (the realisation that the virus has spread to the next town, for example) are wasted by being revealed in bloated conversations. It pains me to type such blasphemy, but the 2010 Breck Eisner remake (reviewed hither) is actually an improvement on this rough draft of an original, even if the zombie-connection Romero is famous for is played up to the hilt in the slick, modern-day frightener.

CR@B Verdict: Hampered by a muddled script and non-existent budget, I sniggered more than I was shocked by this so-called horror. The Crazies has an interesting, issue-laden concept, but it is poorly realised. Sorry George, but you will have your Day.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Eyes Wide Stone

BBC One - 25th April 2010 – 6:20pm
Written by: Stephen Moffat
Directed by: Adam Smith
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Alex Kingston, Iain Glen, David Atkins, Mark Springer, Troy Glasgow, Simon Dutton, Mike Skinner

[“SPOILERS!”] It is reasonable to declare that this hotly-anticipated new era of Doctor Who has received a somewhat inconsistent response to its first 3 adventures. Is Matt Smith’s Doctor eccentric or clumsy? Is Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond cocky or candid? Is the crack motif clever or unsubtle? Are the myriad of aesthetic changes necessary or indulgent? And who the hell remixed the iconic theme music?! While the general consensus is generally weighing towards the positive, critics cannot decide which of the new instalments most demands a rewatch or a switch off. With “The Time of Angels”, however, I think even the most affronted of die Who-ds can put down their burning effigies of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Daleks and agree that the Stephen Moffat reinvention has found its form, and at its peak, is bloody brilliant Saturday night entertainment. Huzzah!

As more of a general viewer than a dedicated Who fanatic (though admittedly no less judgemental), I was thankful for new recruit Amy’s inquisitive probing of returning enigma and vivacious time-traveller River Song (Alex Kingston), who I must admit to not remembering from her previous appearance alongside David Tennant's Doctor in “Forest of the Dead” (2008). Maybe I was out that night? Regardless, the plucky professor certainly made an impact in this episode, with her bullish charm and emasculating effect over the Doctor, particularly when driving his TARDIS and pointing out his mistake of leaving the handbrake on!!

Conversely, the unseen seekers the Weeping Angels required no re-introduction, as their unveiling in the Moffat-penned “Blink” (2007) has etched the statue-esque horrors in my mind as one of the deadliest, scariest and most memorable enemies in one of – if not the – best episode of Doctor Who in recent memory. This sort-of-sequel may not quite have been the flawless masterpiece of their debut, but it was darn close and by no means an illustration of diminishing returns.

Having made a (time) co-ordinated pick-up of River Song from the other side of a 12,000 year gap, the TARDIS-travelling trio were hot on the tail of the spacecraft Byzantium as it crash-landed on a desert world and revealed that the last of the Weeping Angels was hidden like a “hay-like needle of death in a haystack of… statues” (this gem of dialogue was courtesy of the on-form Doctor) in the Maze of the Dead, an ominous and atmospheric temple hidden beneath the earth. So began an Aliens-like hunt through the caverns, accompanied by the future of the Church; an elite team of gun-toting clerical commandos lead by Bishop (Iain Glen).

“The Time of Angels” really was an episode of two halves (and in itself is only the first half of an epic two-parter), with the opening quarter of an hour dedicated to River Song’s exhilarating return before the bubbly, banter-laden tone shifted to a darker shade of tense with Amy getting locked inside a trailer with a Weeping Angel materializing out of the CCTV screen in a nod to The Ring, and the Doctor’s belated realisation that the myriad of deteriorating statues littering the underground grotto were also dying Angels hoping to steal the images of the human team, ratcheting up the feeling of dread by some degree.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph, public perception is divided over the youthful new teaming of Smith and Gillan, but I for one really like their friendly, teasing repartee which sparkles with witty dialogue: “Do I look that clingy?!” pops Amy after the Doctor suggests she looked deep into the Angel’s eyes. This winning formula was accentuated in this latest instalment by the effervescent River, who also packed a verbal punch. “River, hug Amy,” requested the Doctor. “Why?” asked the professor. “Cos I’m busy,” being but one smirk-worthy example in a vibrant, well-written script.

Yet it wasn’t only laughs which made “The Time of Angels” a superior outing: this was family entertainment which wasn’t afraid to scare; the budget was used spectacularly to give a visual veneer far above the BBC’s usual sound-stage standards; and commando Bob’s (David Atkins) chilling monotone delivery as he revealed his demise at the hands of the image-stealing statues was genuinely unsettling.

A stone cold classic? Well, we're only half way through the story and it is shaping up to be a monumentous escapade. I cannot wait for next week’s conclusion.

CR@B Verdict: Witty, creepy, tense and packed with action, “The Time of Angels” was an atmospheric delight with a genuine filmic quality which has carved out a new benchmark for Moffat's rejuvinated era.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Return of the Master Race

BBC One – 17th April 2010 – 6:30pm
Written by: Mark Gatiss
Directed by: Andrew Gunn
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson, Nicholas Pegg, James Albrecht, Susannah Fielding, Colin Prockter, Nina De Cosimo


[SPOILER ALERT] Having taken writing honours on his first two episodes at the helm, for episode 5.3 Stephen Moffat handed scribing duty to a man well known both outside and within the Who-niverse. Renowned for his role in surreal black comedy The League of Gentlemen, Mark Gatiss has also penned two other new Who adventures (“The Idiot's Lantern” and “The Unquiet Dead”), as well as starring as the unstable eponymous scientist in “The Lazarus Experiment” in 2007. This time around, Gatiss is charged with his most challenging task to date: finding a viable excuse for bringing back the Doctor's most distinguishable foe for the umpteenth time. That's no mean feat...

Following directly on from the telephone tag at the close of last week's (personally) disappointing space adventure, “Victory of the Daleks” sees the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) return to Earth and return in time – to the Second World War! Summoned to the Cabinet War Room by his old chum and PM Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice), the travelling twosome are introduced to the Allied's latest secret weapon in the war against the Nazis: Professor Edwin Bracewell's (Bill Paterson) Iron Sides. But you, I and the Doctor - though, curiously, not Miss Pond - know them better as encased alien foes who-just-won't-stay-dead, the Daleks.

The Doctor is quickly and physically incensed by the Iron Side's refusal to acknowledge their true identities as they mill around the squaddies serving tea to the troops (!), until his testimony triggers a Progenitor Device which unlocks the dying race's DNA and allows them to return to their flying saucer and repopulate the Dalek species (in snazzy multicoloured form), turning on the humans they used as bait to lure the Doctor to unlock the key to their survival. Impressive.

It was a fantastic twist to reveal Prof. Bracewell as a robot created by what he believed where his creations and indebted with a life of false memories, leading to suicidal thoughts – in a pre-watershed family show! Props to Gatiss for an original and credible concept married to an energetic script which sizzled with humour, horror, brains and adventure, without feeling weighed down in any one area. The episode could have fallen flat on so many levels, but it was a roaring success. A standout moment for sheer entertainment value was the Doctor's threat to blow up the Dalek's ship by pushing the TARDIS's self destruct button: “Alright, it's a Jammy Dodger - but I was promised tea!”

The visuals of a blitz-ravaged London were stunning, and the climatic space battle as the Allied spitfires bombarded the Dalek saucer was exciting and vibrant (if a little ridiculous: early 20th century human guns defeating a merciless time-travelling alien enemy?!!). One small worry I am left with concerning future instalments, however, is Amy's role: for the second week running she has been of questionable value to the story until she saves the day with a brilliant last minute solution which even the super-intelligent Doctor hasn't thought up. I like her zesty characterisation and rapport with her childhood idol, but it will become far too predictable if this plot device is employed every week.

CR@B Verdict: A well-balanced and spirited return to form after last week's stumble, and possibly the greatest Dalek story of modern Who. A definite victory for Mark Gatiss: “Ex-cep-tion-al!”

Saturday 17 April 2010

The Price of the Night

Blu Review: NEAR DARK
18 – 94mins – 1987
Written by: Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Hendriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Joshua Miller, Tim Thomerson, Marcie Leeds


No disfigured foreheads, no beady feral eyes, no skin-piercing fangs, and – of note – not a single mention of the term “vampire”, but the ragtag gang of ageless outlaws at the centre of this scandalously underrated 80's horror-western are bloodsucking, neck-biting creatures of the night in all but name.

Released in the shadow of the more financially successful fellow cult vamp flick, The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark tells the story of cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who one lazy summer night becomes infatuated with the enchantingly mysterious out-of-towner Mae (Jenny Wright), who leaves him before daylight with one helluva hickey and a steadily-worsening sickness. Before he can stumble home, Caleb is kidnapped by Mae's drifter 'family' – comprising father-figure Jesse (Lance Hendriksen), his woman Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), cruel bastard Severen (Bill Paxton) and aged 'kid' Homer* (Joshua Miller) – who bungle him into their camper van and reluctantly teach him how to survive in his reborn state. Meanwhile, Caleb's father, Loy (Tim Thomerson), and sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds), set off across Texas to track down their missing kin – but which family will Caleb stay loyal to?

Two decades before she became the first female to win the “Best Director” Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008), Near Dark was a very early gig for co-writer and director Kathryn Bigelow, but this is not to say it is a lesser work of an off-peak auteur. The film's simple, linear story is enriched with lush, reflective visuals and a brooding atmosphere. It's a first class product which delivers from the allusive opening mosquito bite to the taut and explosive final twilight showdown. Ye-haw!

When violence and gore are used, they are used brutally and they shock: skin chars, spurs slit and knives enter mouths. The set piece in which the beastly pack gatecrash a backwater bar is an unnerving and, frankly, uncomfortable watch as the unwelcome guests terrorise the petrified clientèle for sheer kicks. Their detachment to the savagery they inflict is chilling; Jesse smirks bemusedly while Homer sings along to the Jukebox! Fundamentally, they are bored, and I believe this intrinsic attitude is what gives the film its slow-burn pace: these immortals are in no rush because they have forever to play the fool and drink deep from the neck of life's hedonistic sins. Provided it's after dark.

CR@B Verdict: Lean on story but dripping with atmosphere, Near Dark is a savage, slow-burn vampire horror with an injection of romance - but Twilight this most certainly ain't. Gritty, terrifying and nightmarish; a deserved cult classic.
* Homer's obsession with “owning” Caleb's little sister in the final third of the film is questionable and disturbing: Homer is an old man trapped in the youthful body he died in.

Friday 16 April 2010

Prelude To The Cherrytree

Single Review: “ONCE” – Diana Vickers
Sony Music Entertainment UK/RCA
Released: 19th April 2010

16 months after her smoky vocals made a splash on 2008’s The X Factor, and following a critically acclaimed 3 month stint playing the lead in the revived West End production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Diana Vickers is back to launch an assault on the UK charts with her debut single “Once”, followed by the enigmatically-titled album Songs From The Tainted Cherrytree, due for release May 3rd – and she’s still only 18!!

Taking the time to work alongside some top writers and producers , find her sound and craft a more personal and authentic album (yes, Diana had a hand in the writing process), rather than rush out a second-rate collection overflowing with predictably familiar cover versions, was a brave but ultimately more rewarding route for the young songstress, and based on the four tracks present on “Once”, I can’t believe Cherrytree will be tainted at all.


1. Once (3:09)
Written by Cathy Dennis and Eg White
A confident statement and perfect choice for first single, "Once" is bright, percussive, electro-tinged fun in a short, sharp radio-friendly shot. I was hooked to this pop gem after only hearing it, well, once…

2. Sunlight (3:58)
Written by Mark Owen
Smooth, reflective verses make way for a rousing chorus on this Mark Owen-penned B-side, which compliments the opening track well. The (modern) Take That influence is clear; "Sunlight" evokes a lush, affable tone akin to "Rule The World".

3. Jumping Into Rivers (Frou Frou Central Mix) (3:30)
Written by Diana Vickers, Ellie Goulding and Guy Sigsworth
I haven’t yet heard the original album version, but if it’s even half as fun as this quirky remix from Frou Frou’s Guy Sigsworth, then I’ll be smiling for hours. "Jumping Into Rivers" screams ‘summer’ with a bohemian vibe in keeping with Diana’s indie image.

4. Four Leaf Clover (Acoustic Version) (3:36)
Written by Diana Vickers and Chris Braide
A more subtle track, this, though that may be because it’s a stripped down take of an album track. Personally, "Four Leaf Clover" is the weakest song on this set, but still a tender ballad and suitably mellow encore utilizing Diana’s wounded vocals.

CR@B Verdict: A solid and well-rounded reintroduction to the distinguishably-larynxed Ms. Vickers ahead of her debut album in May. You’ll certainly want to listen to this catchy pop hit more than "Once".

Thursday 15 April 2010

Creepy Crawlers

18 – 90mins – 2009
Written by: J. Blakeson, James McCarthy, James Watkins
Directed by: Jon Harris
Starring: Shauna McDonald, Gavan O'Herlihy, Krysten Cummings, Douglas Hodge, Joshua Dallas, Anna Skellern, Natalie Mendoza


A belated sequel without the mastermind of the successful and decidedly free-standing original at the helm is usually the sign of a cheap DTV cash-in which is best avoided. Think Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. Shudder. However, The Descent: Part 2 generated healthy reviews upon its cinema release in December, and with Neil Marshall still on board (albeit only in the reduced role of executive producer), I decided to give this return underground a chance, despite the seemingly conclusive end to the original.

Part 2 picks up where the alternate (and moderately less depressing) US edit of The Descent (2005) left off, with lone survivor Sarah (Shauna McDonald) – who perished in the original UK version – back above ground and rambling towards a passing car. Unstable and near-mute from shock, she is soon forced by bull-headed town Sheriff Vaines (Gavan O'Herlihy) to leave hospital and return to the caves she has just barely escaped from, to help locate the five other missing girls who made up her tragic team. It's a dubious moral decision born out of desperation which feels like a slightly contrived way to shoehorn in a returning character for maximum screen time, but once the ragtag search and rescue team (of varying cave-diving experience) are below surface, this is by-the-by.

As Sarah's repressed memories of her horrific time in the caves return via interlaced snapshots from Neil Marshall's film, you begin to realise how dependant upon every aspect of the original this follow up is. This is not to say Part 2 offers no fresh twists or shocks, because it does (Crawler crapper!! Surprise saviour!!), but why bother making a new chapter if you need to mine the first so frequently? The only instance in which this works to the new film's advantage is in the introduction of the hideous, mutated Crawlers, which smartly mirrors similar footage the team have just discovered on a discarded camcorder.

Given the tight angles and shadowy hue of the underground locale, the horror is fairly intense and the gore is effectively visceral (a personal highlight is watching a rat force its way out of the mouth of one of the deceased original team, her body open and gutted) and at times cringingly uncomfortable (“Just cut him!”) as the rescue team gets ever smaller. It is ironic that the blind, Nosferatu-like creatures seem to have a predilection for human necks – I wonder if this was a purposeful reference to a classic light-adverse blood guzzler?

As the film winds on, Sheriff Vaines descends into an arrogant and thoroughly dislikeable character, making a host of rash, stupid decisions, from unholstering his gun in the unstable structure to unnecessarily employing his handcuffs despite the obvious need to, err, climb. Once a Sheriff, always a Sheriff, clearly... However, the only truly damaging misstep in this above average sequel occurs mere seconds from the closing credits, and it appears to defy logic. But, hey, you gotta give the fanboys something to moan about – and the rationalising theories are already in full swing on!

CR@B Verdict: Creepy, gritty and claustrophobic, if a little over-reliant on its superior predecessor. The Descent: Part 2 is a decent horror which only really stutters in the closing moments with an unexpected and random twist.

Cause And Special Effects

Blu Review: THE BOX
12 – 115mins – 2009
Written for the screen by: Richard Kelly
Adapted from the short story “Button, Button” by: Richard Mattheson
Directed by: Richard Kelly
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osbourne, Gillian Jacobs


Richard Kelly has had mixed success with his film career so far. After scoring gold with his head-scratcher of a time-twisting, thought-provoking debut, Donnie Darko (2001), he took aaaaages to bring us the disastrous, bloated mess that was Southland Tales (2006). Even with personal favourite Sarah Michelle Gellar playing a porn star (!) I still detested the film to such a degree that I nearly gave up on film watching altogether. Nearly.

So now we come to his latest attempt to confound, mystify and enlighten audiences: The Box, based on a short story from I Am Legend scribe Richard Mattheson. Dubiously, I decided to give it a go… Set in 1976, high school teacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA optics engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden) are chosen by the mysterious lightening-disfigured Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) to take a morally questionable test based around the titular MacGuffin: you have 24 hours to decide whether to push the button, or not. If you do, you will receive $1million dollars (woo). However, somebody you don’t know will die (boo).

What would YOU do?

For the first hour of its 115minute running time, The Box was a taught, tense and credibly atmospheric drama probing human morals, greed, suspicion and paranoia – with a genuinely creepy edge. It’s hardly a spoiler for me to tell you that Norma does push the button, a decision both she and Arthur instantly regret. Indeed, their “winnings” are locking in the basement and barely given another thought. Arlington (see pic, above) accrues the mystery by refusing to answer questions about his shady and immoral test, but knowing far more than a human ever could – and he seems to have mumbling, bleary-eyed “employees” everywhere...

The film takes itself very seriously, and the cast play everything inflexibly straight, even as we pass the hour mark and things take a bizarre supernatural turn which threatens to derail the impressive first half. It brought to mind the genre-swapping shift midway through From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), only far, far less successful. Creepy gives way to kooky, especially when a visit to the library offers up a further test for Arthur in the form of three Stargate-esque portals, one of which offers him salvation yet leaves him floating above Norma in their bedroom, cocooned in a cube of dubiously CGI-ed water(!!).

Somehow, someway, following ethereal revelations, shootings and a kidnapping, the film eventually comes full circle, ending with god-wannabe Arlington making Arthur choose between his wife’s life and his son, Walter‘s (Sam Oz Stone), health, before the Two Face-channelling obscurity heads down the street to give another couple The Box

Maybe the book made more sense?!

CR@B Verdict: Neither a Darko-dimensioned delight, nor a Southland-shaped shambles, The Box starts out as a tense psychological chiller before showing its true (shark-jumping) sci-fi hue. A curious and peculiar piece which may benefit from a repeat viewing – or locking away in the basement… What would YOU do?

Wednesday 14 April 2010

No Goats, No Glory

15 – 89mins – 2009
Screenplay by: Peter Straughan
Inspired by the book, written by: Jon Ronson
Directed by: Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick


Purportedly based on true events (but clearly given a healthy creative spruce), this high concept comedy sees small town reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) hit rock bottom before deciding to head to Kuwait as a war journalist and land a totally unexpected exclusive that nobody is likely to believe. Equally, some audiences may struggle with The Men Who Stare At Goats’ kooky New Age philosophy and paranormal conceit, but if you open your mind you will enjoy a bright and outlandish film. And no, I am not suggesting you get high, dude…

On his travels Bob meets Special Forces operator Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims he was part of a American training unit dubbed the “New Earth Army” founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, channelling his inner hippy once more) some 30 years ago. The unit focused on developing psychic ‘super’ powers in its soldiers, including the seemingly inane title-alluding ability to kill a goat just by staring at it. Believing it is fate that they have met, Lyn lets Bob accompany him on a dessert-bound mission while feeding him snippets of the hippy-esque unit and his rivalry with fellow recruit, the more darkly-minded Larry Hopper (Kevin Spacey; an unabashed riot).

Tonally reminiscent of the Coen brother’s quirky romp Burn After Reading – which is no bad thing – and split between wacky training flashbacks from the 1970s and 80s, and the early noughties-set Iraq mission narrative (and doing a very authentic job of turning back the years on its middle-aged stars), The Men Who Stare At Goats can at times feel like a rambling hotchpotch of scenes featuring an ever-increasing ensemble cast (including a shockingly old looking Robert Patrick). However, the film is held together with some superbly witty and self-aware dialogue which never fails to illicit a smile (Ewan “Obi-Wan” McGregor claiming ignorance of what a Jedi is, being a prime example), even if the conclusion is somewhat underwhelming.

CR@B Verdict: A meandering plot and slightly anticlimactic ending shouldn’t dissuade you, Goats is chockfull of sharply written, witty dialogue, superbly acted by a band of established stars with their tongues firmly in cheek.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Soul Survivors

DVD Review: 9
12 – 75mins – 2009
Story by: Shane Acker
Screenplay by: Pamela Pettler
Directed by: Shane Acker
Starring the voice talents of: Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer


Shane Acker should be commended for effectively auteuring 9 – his first feature film – expanding and padding out his 2005 Academy Award-nominated short film of the same name, which, amazingly, he made for his college dissertation. The story of a sapient rag doll ‘awakening’ on a post-apocalyptic Earth where mankind has been wiped out by rampaging cognisant machines and a group of nine “Stitchpunks” (think Sackboy in PS3's Little Big Planet) are all that remains, sticks very closely to Acker's silent 10 minute short, both aesthetically and thematically, which is perhaps why the computer animated film looks incredible (it is obvious why Tim Burton took the role of producer; his kooky, gothic style a clear inspiration) but feels weak in compelling plot progression over its already trim runtime.

Equipped with a mysterious talisman left by the scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) who created and indebted them with a portion of his soul, 9 (Elijah Wood) joins, impacts and inspires the band of miniature survivors led by the cagey and cowardly 1 (Christopher Plummer) in their battle against the corrupted metallic menaces who devastated the planet. It's a minor point, but I personally found the characters denotation as numbers to be quite irritating after a while, even if their individual personalities and clear-cut roles did shine through (bodyguard, warrior, artist, engineer, inventor, explorer, etc.). It would have been easier for me to engage with the animate inanimates were they given names, although I understand why they were not: they are each part of a greater whole.

The film wears its simple message of community, humanity and hope against the odds blatantly on its sleeve (literally: it reveals them on the back cover synopsis and reiterates them in onscreen dialogue) and, because of this, I cannot say I was ever shocked, surprised or awestruck by any aspect of the linear story. Even the initial faux-conclusion following the supposed victory over the soul-sucking Fabrication Machine was obviously not the end, occurring after only 55 minutes.

I was also left numb following the "optimistic" epilogue: the talisman is used to release the souls of the five 'dead' Stitchpunks from the belly of the Fabrication Machine. But rather than bringing them back to life, the freed apparitions merely wave goodbye to their surviving friends and float to the heavens, causing it to precipitate a neon-green-tinged rain. So, life isn't dead on Earth after all, but how am I supposed to be comforted by this when over half of the main characters were killed off to get to this evolutionary conclusion?!

CR@B Verdict: A promising debut from the young director, showcasing a wealth of imagination and visual flair. Somewhat lacking in plot development, 9 is nonetheless a tantalising aesthetic achievement.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Starwell To Heaven

BBC One - 10th April 2010 – 6:15pm
Written by: Stephen Moffat
Directed by: Andrew Gunn
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Sophie Okonedo, Terrence Hardiman, Hannah Sharp, Christopher Good, Catrin Richards, Jonathan Battersby, Alfie Field, David Ajala, Chris Porter


Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear... after last week's high-flying Moffat/Smith era opener, last night's sophomore episode came crashing down as a great disappointment in ALL areas, which is ironic given that “The Eleventh Hour” was grounded on 21st century Earth, while “The Beast Below” took us on a journey to the stars aboard the 29th century Starship UK; a police state comprising all of England's towns and cities aboard one flying landmass. The country's children are upset, creepy rotating clown-headed “Smilers” (see pic, below) sit in decaying Fairground booths passing judgement on the masses while piping a live feed through to Big Brother, and the gigantic ship's engines aren't making the water vibrate. Hmmmm, can somebody call the Doctor (Matt Smith), or, better yet: a science fiction and fantasy film buff...

I was instantly and continually troubled by the episode's truly unoriginal patchwork plot: from the Discworld-esque locale and Mort-dressed surveillance Minders, to the grimmy Blade Runner aesthetic of the post-apocalyptic environ, not to mention numerous cringeworthy Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (Amy in her nightgown for the entire episode) and Star Wars (“My only hope”; garbage chute) references. In short, there was not a single innovative theme, character or device in the entire hectic 45 minutes. But it wasn't only classic genre pieces that Moffat borrowed from: modern science-fiction was also mined in the form of Lost-like video diaries as evidence of the hidden truth behind Starship UK's engine-less flight, and a Protest/Forget button in the Voting Booth somewhat simplifying the red-pill/blue-pill quandary facing Neo in The Matrix.

I wish I had been able to chose 'Forget' and erase any memory of this below-par adventure, especially when the gothic-gowned Phantom of the Opera impersonator trailing the Doctor turned out to be Liz Ten (Sophie Okonedo), the future Queen of England (with the most annoying “common” accent ever: “I'm the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule.” *cringe*) who has been kept in the dark about the horrific and inhumane truth behind her country's Pratchett-plagiarising propulsion practises, pushing the episode's primary concern over the children's safety to the background for far too long (while Hannah Sharp's schoolgirl Mandy stood around idle yet still in shot).

Furthermore, I can't say I was overly taken by Matt Smith's portrayal of the Doctor this week; he is clearly comfortable in the role but I found myself getting more and more exasperated by his increasingly kooky asides and scatty persona, which failed to make me smile like Tennant used to. It also seems like more of an act, given how ridiculously well-informed he truly is. You may feel I am being overly hard on “The Beast Below”, so I will leave you on a positive note (yes, there is one); the plot climaxed with an emotional intensity which really helped bond the Doctor and his new assistant, as Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) saved the day by making a parallel to the immortal Doctor's loneliness. It was a mature and well acted scene, if only Moffat didn't feel the need to drive the message home by repeating it nearly word-for-word in the star-gazing epilogue, akin to the way the early Harry Potter films spelt out EVERYTHING to aid the youthful demographic.

CR@B Verdict: A hackneyed dud worryingly early on in the new series, the only bright lights being an emotional intensity to the climax and a number of subtle callbacks (Magpie Electricals) and references (like on Amelia's wall, a crack appears on the side of Starship UK) to keep the loyal fanbase content. A prime example of Who trying too hard.

Thursday 8 April 2010

The Lord of the 300 Mummies: Return of the Kraken

12A – 106mins – 2010
Written by: Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
Adapted from the 1981 screenplay by: Beverley Cross
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Tine Stapelfedt, Mads Mikkelsen, Luke Evans, Jason Flemming, Gemma Arterton, Hans Matheson, Pete Postlethwaite


Well the good news is it isn’t as disastrously bad as the critics make out. The bad news is it still isn’t great. Put it this way: I can’t see Clash 2010 being as fondly remembered as Clash 1981 in 30 years time. But then, watching the original in recent weeks (it’s all about the research at The CR@B Shack), I failed to see why that is so fondly remembered either... Back to the present, and heeding prior warning I avoided the allegedly abysmal 3D ‘upgrade’ and stuck to good ole’ fashioned two dimensional viewing. I couldn’t pinpoint any scenes which would have benefited from an added dimension – but I suppose that’s because the film was never written or shot with 3D in mind…

Tweaking the intricacies of the original’s plot but still keeping – roughly – within the grandiose guidelines (though being truly flippant with Greek mythology), Louis Leterrier’s frenetic update sees demi-god-come-fisherman-come-mankind’s-saviour Perseus (Sam Worthington) leading a small army of warriors against a myriad of giant scorpions, deformed monsters (Jason Flemming as Calibos), sightless witches (see pic, above), the snake-haired Medusa and the beastly, sea-dwelling Kraken. Their quest is to evade the sacrifice of the Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) and save the city of Argos, which has fallen foul of the god’s wrath after its inhabitants felled a statue of mighty Zeus (Liam Neeson, donning the shiniest of shiny armour).

Despite forming half of the battle, the Olympian god’s are – for the most part – relegated to cameo roles. For instance, I’m not even sure if Poseidon (played, according to, by Danny Heuston!!) featured at all, because aside from Zeus and Hades, all the other gods are about as useful as marble statues; bland, speechless forms void of character that are ushered away the minute anything remotely interesting kicks off. Ralph Fiennes does well to embody slimy evil in the devilish and cursed character of Hades, but quite why a powerful and immortal god hobbles around like an aching octogenarian in a raggedy cloak is beyond me? Yes, I get that he has been tricked by Zeus into lording over the underworld, but if he has the power to apparate, fly and command the Kraken, then surely he can magic himself up a new outfit befitting a god?

A further niggle I have is the sheer pettiness of the god’s, who really should know better. With great power comes great responsibility – and a truly malevolence idea of 'appropriate' vengeance, apparently. I was especially infuriated at the epilogue when Zeus downplayed the entire saga and the deaths of thousands of innocent Argos civilians with a whimsical click of his fingers and cheeky smirk – if things were that easy to undo, then why put man through such pain and misery? Additionally, having ageless Io (Gemma Arteton) tag along as Perseus’s guardian-come-love-interest was an unnecessary alteration to the story (in the original he fell for Andromeda and went on to become king); her only purpose being narration and exposition.

Stylistically, the film struggles to find a unique aesthetic. It looks epic, but only because the sweeping mountainous landscapes recall The Lord of the Rings’s New Zealand locales, the roaming Argos army brings to mind the macho Spartan 300, the neon-blue-eyed, bark-skinned Djinn reek of The Mummy and the atrociously-computerised Medusa looks like the Scorpion King’s dead-eyed sister – but at least Stephen Sommers’s attempt at human-animal CGI characterisation has the excuse that it was rendered nearly a decade ago. As icing on the derivative cake, Titans had 3D (unnecessarily and unsuccessfully) tacked on in post-production simply to make a few extra bucks off the back of Avatar’s romping worldwide success. So, a wholly unoriginal remake – perhaps Cash-in of the Titans would have been a more fitting title?

CR@B Verdict: Swords, sandals, serpents, scorpions, sorcery and CGI – Clash of the Titans throws a lot at the screen in its decidedly un-epic running time, yet it still feels as hollow as a Djinn’s torso. A fun film, if flawed and ultimately forgettable.

Monday 5 April 2010

Superbad Superheroes

Cine-review: KICK-ASS
15 – 117 mins – 2010
Written by: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Adapted from the comic book series by: Mark Miller
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mark Strong, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Dexter Fletcher


The problem with hyped-up, word-of-mouth movies is that if you don't “get” what all the fuss is about, you start to question yourself: "What am I missing?" "What is everybody else going gaga over?" "Should I give it a second viewing?" "How does it deserve 5 stars?!!" These are some of the questions plaguing me since watching Kick-Ass, the bold new 'superzero' adaptation from Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, the writer and director duo behind Stardust, which is receiving almost unanimous rave reviews from critics and cinema-goers alike.

For those critics and cinema-goers, the following will be a controversial read...

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnston) is just your everyday Peter Parker-esque high school student: he's a scrawny guy who flails when talking to the opposite sex – including the “Mary Jane” of the piece, Katie Deauxma (Desperate Housewives' Lyndsy Fonseca) – and spends his evenings online working his way through a pack of Kleenex... until he and his equally geeky classmates Marty (Clarke Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters) are mugged for the nth time and Dave dons a web-bought scuba suit to become... Kick Ass, who, most of the time, ends up getting his ass kicked and his chest stabbed (yeah, I was shocked, too), leaving him with shredded nerve endings and a higher tolerance for pain.

Meanwhile, Lex Luther-lite goon Frank D'Amico (Sherlock Holmes villian Mark Strong) is furious at the overnight online success of this costumed crime-fighter, especially when others start following the trend and taking out his henchmen: vengence-bent Damon Macready (an above average Nicolas Cage) becomes the Batman-like Big Daddy and his weapon-savvy 11 year old daughter, Mindy, becomes the purple-wigged Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz; a spritely sensation), prompting Frank's isolated son, Chris (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing McLovin in all but name), to hatch an expensive sabotage plan in the form of Red Mist.

As you can see, there is a LOT going on in Kick-Ass, all of it very in-your-face, and sometimes characters and plot strands are off-screen and almost out of your memory for large chunks of the film: Marty, Todd and Katie in particular. The major issue I had with the film was there were just too many juxtaposing styles clashing awkwardly: high school humour, teen romance, superhero pastiche, comic book fantasy, gangster torture thriller, gore-soaked beat 'em up. It's fun, granted, but what is 'it' supposed to be? The film's selling point is that these are normal people playing dress up, so why does it cross over into hyper-silly fantasy with rocket powered jet packs, skyscraper damaging bazookas and walk-in microwaves?!

Kudos to Goldman and Vaughn for a complete departure from their 2007 Neil Gaiman adap to bring something new and striking to the well-worn superhero genre; Kick-Ass is everything but half-assed (*guffaw*) – and that is the problem: The violence is shockingly brutal, the gore slopped about in abundance, the language foul and the humour snigger-some. Quite how this wasn't rated '18' I will never know... It's extreme, dizzying and totally unrelenting, and with such a mixed bag you're bound to taste some flavours you want to spit out.

CR@B Verdict: Mix Watchmen's level of bloody violence, Kill Bill's stylistic idiosyncrasies, Spiderman's amiability, The Dark Knight's action and Superbad's high school humour and you have yourself a Kick-Ass cocktail. It's a potent concoction which would have gone down smoother as individual shots.

Saturday 3 April 2010

A Mad Man With A Box

BBC One - 3rd April 2010 – 6:20pm
Written by: Stephen Moffat
Directed by: Adam Smith
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Tom Hopper, Arthur Darvill, Nina Wadia, Annette Crosbie, Olivia Colman and Patrick Moore


I have always liked the so-called “new Who” (AKA the Eccleston and Tennant eras), not to the extent that I would record it if I was out, but it always provided good, light-hearted (if occasionally too light) family entertainment on a Saturday teatime. With the dawn of a new Matt Smith-shaped era – and with a new showrunner at the helm following Russell T. Davis's departure – I sat down to watch with great expectations (after all, it's been kinda hard to escape the BBC hype machine in recent weeks); and it's fair to say Stephen Moffat delivered with a superb and dizzying debut.

New showrunner. New Time Lord. New Assistant. New TARDIS. New Sonic Screwdriver – and before the poor Doctor (Matt Smith) has time to adjust to his eleventh regeneration, he crash lands on Earth and has just 20 minutes to defeat a new alien enemy. Well, at least the iconic theme tune is the same – oh, no, wait: that's newly remixed too. Talk about a new brush sweeping clean... and yet, “The Eleventh Hour” wasn't inaccessibly innovative – it was glossier, edgier and had a distinctly more filmic quality (from the – mostly – impressive CG effects to the more dramatic musical score), but it was still comfortingly familiar.

Although he has been on board the show for some time now, Stephen Moffat was clearly out to make a bold first impression in his new head position – “The Eleventh Hour” was Doctor Who Plus: more emotional, more touching, funnier, sexier, scarier and edgier than the previous (and hugely popular) incarnation – but without David Tennant's popularity to fall back on. From the dramatic, flame-hindered TARDIS free-falling across the London night sky to the Piranha-esque "Prisoner Zero" with the ability to take the form of any being it links with psychically, tonight's series opener was an epic thrill-ride.

Based on this first performance, Smith looks set to make the revered role his own with an enjoyably quirky performance (fish fingers and custard!!) packed with humour and a uniquely gawkish quality - yet he was definitely still in control and not out of his depth. His new assistant, feisty Scot Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), certainly made an immediate impact brandishing a cricket bat and wearing a sexy policewoman's kiss-o-gram outfit (see pic, left), but she has a cute, vulnerable quality given her sentimental back story. For Amelia (to give her her birth name) first met the Doctor aged 7 (and played by Caitlin Blackwood) when, immediately following his regeneration, he crashed into her back garden somewhat confused and hungry for apples... this had a severe impact upon the young orphan's life – the Doctor promised to return in 5 minutes but doesn't return for 12 years*, in which time Amy has had to see four psychiatrists to get over her 'imaginary' friend, the “Raggedy Doctor”...

I felt the plot – involving the escaped "Prisoner Zero" being tracked by intergalactic 'police' known as the Atraxi (giant eyeballs) – got a little confusing at times, as decisions were made and people were rushing this way and that in the blink of a (giant) eye. Furthermore, the scientific mumbo-jumbo was babbled at break-neck speed (particularly while the Doctor was borrowing a man's laptop to piggyback on a worldwide phone call to Patrick Moore!!), yet the outcome was predictably simple: the Atraxi left Earth when they realised Smith was the Doctor. Okay, point made: he's back, with a younger face and a bow tie, but he's still fearsome, even to giant eyeballs with the power to incinerate the globe!! Riiiiight... But then plot, logic and reason are really of secondary importance on Doctor Who, and as a piece of fantasy entertainment “The Eleventh Hour” was first rate.

CRaB Verdict: A CRACKing, if complex, opener for Matt Smith and Stephen Moffat; the Doctor is back in business and I'll definitely be booking an appointment for next Saturday.
* What year are we supposed to be in now, then, given that this episode jumps 12 and, in the epilogue, a further 2, years? 2024??!

Thursday 1 April 2010

Terry Gilliam’s Cavalcade of Carnival-esque Calamity

12 – 122 mins. - 2009
Written by: Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Verne Troyer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law


Fated to forever be remembered as “Heath Ledger’s Last Film”, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is – as my lengthy and ludicrous tongue-twister of a title suggests – a wonderfully exuberant and surreal head-trip of a movie, though definitely not to everybody’s taste.

Christopher Plummer plays the immortal and eponymous doc, cursed to travel modern-day London with his oddball circus troupe (Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield) in order to lure five souls to enter the titular Imaginarium to win a bet with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) and not forfeit his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), to the suave-but-snide devil. *Breathe* Ledger plays suicidal charity man Tony, struggling to remember his own dark past while falling for Valentina and being chased by a gang of angry Russian heavies...

The plot is twistingly complex and does get a little bogged down under its own weight towards the end, but this is otherwise a magically original film with exquisitely hallucinogenic CGI as the Old World meets the New World and they both have a riot. Even drafting in big-name stars to complete Ledger’s unfinished role (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law play reflections of Tony inside the Imaginarium) doesn’t seem out of place in this distinctively outlandish tale typical of Python alumni Gilliam’s vivid imagination. As far as recent effects-heavy, portal-hopping adventures go, Wonderland pales into comparison: Parnassus has Burton's madcap Alice beat at its own game.

CR@B Verdict: Bold, inventive and strikingly original: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is by far co-writer and director Terry Gilliam’s best film in years and a fine tribute to its late star.