Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Wondrous Tail

U – 99mins – 2008
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Inspired by “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
English dub featuring the voices of: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Betty White

Hayao Miyazaki’s eighth Studio Ghibli masterpiece has taken nearly two years to reach UK shores and – scandalously – was the first film for which he was not nominated for an Academy Award. But don’t let those factors mislead you into thinking this animated reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid is cod awful second rate fish food; Ponyo on the Cliff (to give the film its clumsy Japanese title) is a bright, beautifully rendered fairy tale which will touch, charm and excite children from 5 to 105.

The eponymous Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus on the English dub) is a mischievous goldfish with the head of a child (stay with me here) who longs to see the world outside the aquarium tank in her father’s – the powerful magician Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) – underwater castle. Escaping on the back of a jellyfish, Ponyo becomes stranded on the shore of a small fishing village and is rescued by five year old Sōsuke (Frankie Jonas), who befriends the charming piscine. Having healed a cut on Sōsuke’s hand by licking it, Ponyo uses the boy’s blood to morph into a human girl and evade her father for a second time after he “rescues” her from the human’s who “kidnapped” his daughter. However, in her sophomore escape, Ponyo accidentally releases a flood of powerful magic which causes an imbalance in the world, bringing the moon and stars out of orbit and causing a freak storm.

A furious Fujimoto is persuaded by Ponyo’s mother – Granmammare, the goddess of Mercy (Cate Blanchett) – that all is not lost. She proposes that if Sōsuke can pass a test and prove his love for their daughter, whatever her form, then Ponyo will be granted to live her life as a human and order will be restored to the world once more…

Writing out that synopsis it occurs to be just how utterly barmy this film sounds, but it is surprising how invested you become in these charismatic and loveable characters, despite the high concept world in which they live. The fantastical components do not distract from the humanistic element at Ponyo’s heart, and because of this the film flows wonderfully and never feels disconcertingly "weird". It is closer in tone to the innocence and exploratory escapades of My Neighbour Totoro (1988) than the more menacing threats lurking behind the splendour in Miyazaki's more recent Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2006), yet adults will still find much to admire from Ponyo, without being sickened by the moral virtuosity seaping from its gills.

The film’s standout set-piece is without doubt the ferocious storm which accompanies Ponyo on her return to land. Watching the little girl run atop the crashing waves composed of schools of giant fish is as breathtaking as it is iconic. There is a beauty in the painstakingly hand drawn anime imagery Miyazaki employs which would have been lost had the scene been swamped in layers of soulless, faultless CGI. Such intimate attention to homely detail is paid throughout the film that you become as invested in watching the famished kids scoff down noodles and ham as you are in watching Ponyo magically enlarge a toy boat into a feasible vehicle for her and Sōsuke to traverse the flooded village in search of the young lad’s mother (Tina Fey). Ponyo’s destination may never be in doubt, but this journey under the sea and into your heart is more than worth taking. Set sail for superior animated filmmaking!

CR@B Verdict: Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting reimagining of The Little Mermaid is a dazzling and graceful ode to innocence which is sure to delight and uplift all ages. Ponyo is a must sea.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A Job to Die For

DVD Review: EXAM
15 – 101mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Stuart Hazeldine
Story by: Simon Garrity and Stuart Hazeldine
Directed by: Stuart Hazeldine
Starring: Luke Mably, Adar Beck, Chris Carey, Gemma Chan, Nathalie Cox, John Lloyd Fillingham, Chukwudi Iwuji, Pollyanna McIntosh, Jimi Mistry, Colin Salmon

If you thought people were desperate enough to do anything for a job in our current recession-hit era, then you ain’t seen nothin' yet. Exam is a taut, tense and atmospheric low budget thriller set in the near future (“Soon” so the title card reads) which gets a lot of mileage out of literally holing a set of strangers up in a locked room with one objective, then watching them fall apart from behind a blackout screen.

Eight competing candidates from divergent social and ethnic backgrounds, all gunning for the same position at a sketchy, high-powered company; just how far will they go to get their dream job when the one question they must answer is a riddle which demands they band together? An assured and hard-hitting debut from writer and director Stuart Hazeldine, Exam continues to shock and surprise as the eager contenders turn on one another and are one-by-one ejected for breaking the brash invigilator’s (Colin Salmon) strict but carefully worded rules. Pay attention at the back!

As the clock runs down and the blank exam paper still eludes the unnamed careerists, determination turns implausibly ugly in the purportedly lawless confines. Ruthless doesn’t do these guys justice. The solution is a little hackneyed for tingeing the low-fi situation with a science-fiction hue, but Exam is still worth sitting. Let’s just hope this company has a staff counsellor on site - and a darn good lawyer…

CR@B Verdict: An unsympathetic and vicious study of humanity under pressure, Exam’s claustrophobic, finely constructed mystery concept plays like The Cube meets The Apprentice. Alan Sugar, eat your heart out. Stuart Hazeldine? You’re hired.

Friday, 25 June 2010


A year ago you left the earth
To reside in heaven away from hurt
Away from ignorance and prejudice
Away from those jealous of your success.

Now you are free; truly invincible
But so cruelly taken before you could show
That you never let their lies get you down
That you never, not ever, relinquished your crown.

With us you will live on forever more
Your remarkable voice will sing and soar
Your energy and passion will inspire and delight
Your love will warm those who miss your light.

Your gift to us was your legacy
And the joy you gave so selflessly
Now let us reimburse your life cut short
Now let us celebrate the King of Pop.

by Christopher Howard

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Two-Dimensional Terror

15 – 89mins – 1987
Written by: George A. Romero
Based on stories by: Stephen King
Directed by: Michael Gornick
Starring: Tom Savini, George Kennedy, Dorothy Lamour, Frank Salsedo, Holt McCallany, Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer, Page Hannah, Lois Chiles , David Beecroft, Tom Wright, Richard Parks


Five years after George A. Romero and Stephen King brought us five tales of jolting terror in 1982's Creepshow anthology, the masters of horror returned to bring us another issue of camp comic scares presented by demonic storyteller The Creep (Tom Savini). Second time around Romero took screenplay duty and Creepshow's cinematographer, Michael Gornick, was promoted to director. Budget restrictions (what more should we expect when indie auteur Romero is involved?) saw the original film's five strip set-up reduced to a trio of King-inspired shorts.

A cartoon wraparound bringing back Billy (Domenick John), the avid reader of the eponymous tome from the first film, interjects the live-action stories with a clichéd story of bullies never prospering... with giant Venus Flytraps. Given the film's graphic inspiration, it was a nice idea to incorporate hand-drawn animation, and I fully accept that these serialised skits would make the most of their artistic (and budgetary) freedom, but the moralistic story felt far too childish and ridiculously OTT, and it lessened the impact of the more mature – though equally unrealistic – live-action vignettes. And that's saying a lot...

Old Chief Wood'nhead: The wooden statue of a Native American (Dan Kamin) comes alive to deliver vengeance for an elderly couple needlessly murdered by a gang of lowlife thugs in a bungled raid on their southwest store.

This first story starts surprisingly slowly, allowing the audience to warm to Ray (George Kennedy) and Martha Spruce (Dorothy Lamour), a kind-hearted and hard-working couple you can't help but admire. This bond makes their slaughter at the hand of vain, delusional ringleader Sam Whitemoon (Holt McCallany) and his braindead cohorts all the more cruel and hard to watch. The lengthy burglary scene leaves little time for the Chief's bloody retribution to have much impact, and the majority of his rampage is only shown in silhouette or off screen (such as Sam's apt demise). Also: what's the point of having a possessed wooden bodyguard if you have to die before he step's off his podium? A great concept then, but "Old Chief Wood'nhead" was averagely executed.

The Raft: Four disposable teens with hackneyed personalities (jock, slut, shy girl and eco-warrior) take an out-of-season trip to a lake to smoke weed, swim in the freezing waters and get laid on the titular wooden device. However, an unidentified blob monster has other plans and strands them in the middle of the lake before picking them off one by one and dragging them under the surface...

The weakest of the three segments, “The Raft” is let down in three key areas. Firstly, by a supernatural predator which looks more like a few old plastic bags floating in the river then the “oil slick” it keeps getting mistaken for. Secondly, I appreciate that the teenagers are meant to be naïve and they are playing clichés of the helpless victims who always get killed off, but when even the nicest and most “normal” guy, Randy (Daniel Beer), fondles his dead mate’s girlfriend while she sleeps, having just seen two of their friend’s murdered, I failed to have an iota of sympathy for any of them. Thirdly, the plot is as thin as a line drawing: the monster is never explained, the characters fail to think up an escape plan and the whole story is terribly one-sided. “The Raft” suffered from a lack of substance or plot progression; the kids don’t even attempt to see if their alien adversary has a weakness, preferring to simply wait it out until death. Good plan(!)

The Hitch-hiker: Businesswoman Annie Lansing (Lois Chiles) is in a hurry to drive 20 miles in an impossible 7 minutes to avoid her rich and punctual husband (Richard Parks) from suspecting her infidelity with a male gigolo (David Beecroft). Losing control at the wheel, Annie runs down a hitchhiker (Tom Wright), panics and leaves him for dead. Only he isn’t prepared to let her get away with it… "Thanks for the lift, lady!"

Ramping up the tension and the gore-factor, “The Hitch-hiker” is far and away the most satisfying of the three tales: a paranormal fable of revenge where we are rooting for the bloodied and mangled remains of a man wronged. It is also successful in playing with our sense of reality – has Annie’s state of shock lead her to hallucinate the disturbing events? – before justice is, ahem, wheeled out. Though quite how Annie ever made it home before her husband is beyond me...?

CR@B Verdict: As fun as this comic book horror can be, Creepshow 2 offers little depth to its lightweight chills. The animated intermissions also negate the live-action terror, with only “The Hitchhiker” delivering any darkness in an otherwise bright, camp extravagance.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Mess With the Bull, You Get the Claws

15 – 97mins – 2009
Written by:Paul King
Directed by: Paul King
Starring: Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby. Veronica Echegui, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Sylvia Syms


[SPOILERS] Comparisons to BBC's The Mighty Boosh were inevitable given the innumerable crossovers, cameos and similarities in visual style (not to mention the unmissable “From the Director of...” banner emblazoned across every poster and retail copy), but writer and director Paul King's feature length debut is equally comparable to Michel Gondry's surrealist comedy/drama The Science of Sleep (2006), given the melancholic tone ever-present beneath the laughs.

Retelling a pivotal European road trip through the disjointed memories of OCD-suffering hermit Stephen Turnball (Edward Hogg – impressively subtle), Bunny and the Bull is fabulously quirky and imaginative at rendering “Europe” out of the boxed-away possessions that now comprise Stephen's lonely, pill-popping existence. Photographs replace landscapes, restaurant tables are drawn in pen and buildings are constructed out of stacked-up files as reality is shelved and the shy lead joins his intimidating, amoral gambler of a best mate, the ironically named Bunny (Simon Farnaby – irritatingly likeable), on a globe-trotting adventure like no other.

Kooky supporting characters portrayed by the noughties cult British comic talent may clutter the artificial landscape and provide some truly bonkers scenarios along the way (particularly Julian Barratt as tramp Atilla, suckling milk from the teat of a dog named Cow), but the heart of this film is the oft-challenged – but concrete – friendship between the polar lead characters; Bunny may have loose sexual morals but he is always thinking of Stephen's best interests (in his own misjudged way), whereas his love-shy best friend certainly needs the push out of the “Friend Zone” he so reluctantly accepts in furthering his potential relationship with ballsy crab waitress Eloisa (Veronica Echegui).

As the travelling trio arrive in Spain for a fiesta in Eloisa's home town and meet-up with her wild-eyed matador-wannabe of a brother, Javier (Noel Fielding), the film's title finally makes sense and the harsh reality of Stephen's isolated prison of the present punctures the psychedelic fantasy like a bull's horn in the gut. It's a heart-wrenching reveal which is at odds with the pair's playfully juvenile banter, but it skilfully demonstrates that Paul King has the ability to diverge from his Boosh template and grow as a unique and distinctive auteur.

CR@B Verdict: Not just for fans of the Boosh, Bunny and the Bull is a captivating and brilliant visual treat of a road movie which is as sweet and touching as it is zany and bizarre.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

(Meat) Swords and Scandals

15 – 93mins – 2007
Written by: David Leland
Directed by: David Leland
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Mischa Barton, Tim Roth, Matthew Rhys, Rupert Friend


Despite a $40 million budget, a handful of semi-decent sword fights, some stunning Italian countryside backdrops and a fairly well known (if hardly credible) up-and-coming cast, it isn’t difficult to deduce why David Leland’s Virgin Territory was deprived of a theatrical run and quietly sneaked out direct-to-DVD instead; it’s an uncomfortable mess of a movie which throws a lot of two dimensional characters and relationships at the audience, then grows bored of the set-up and finds ever-more implausible excuses to get the girls to disrobe in the hope we’ll forget just how terrible all the other aspects of the script are.

Well, I haven’t. Which is unfortunate for David Leland (as he's about to receive one helluva bad write up), but even more unfortunate for me because I am now scarred with the memory of just how close I came – on multiple occasions – to turning this appalling tat off. None more so than while watching two prick-teasing milkmaids bring a cow to milk over the faces of two up-for-it Florentines… Seriously, that wasn't innuendo. Virgin Territory is no romantic period drama; it's more comparable to one of the latter American Pie sequels mixed with groan-inducing Carry On... style “humour” (and I use that term loosely) – in the 14th century.

Narrated by angel-arse-painter-masquerading-as-a-priest Alessandro Felice (Rupert Friend – quirky, inane), the film's sketchy plot concerns the beautiful Princess Pampinea (Mischa The O.C. Barton – expressionless), orphaned after the death of her parents to the plague, and the decision she must make regarding who she should marry: her betrothed suitor from across the seas, Count Dzerzhinsky (Matthew Rhys – flamboyant), rich local baddie old enough to be her father, Gerbino De La Ratta (Tim Roth – slumming it), or handsome and dashing rogue – and, hint hint, MALE LEAD – Lorenzo (Hayden "Anakin Skywalker" Christensen – unemotive)? Hmmmm, I wonder...

Surprisingly, it still takes Pampinea over ninety cringeworthy minutes to make the most obvious decision ever, as she and a band of faceless, randy youngsters make their way across Italy to escape the plague ravishing the city, getting into all manner of farcical, sexual escapades on their travels. As you do. Lorenzo falls out of a tree and pretends to be death and mute (!) so that a local monastery will hire him as their gardener and he can have his way with the sex-starved nuns; laddish Ghino (Ryan Cartwright) is so obsessed with losing his virginity he dreams of angelic winged phallus's while he sleep-humps air; feisty redhead Filomena (Rossalindel Halstead) escapes from becoming a sex slave to a travelling circus by making the men drop their trousers and pegging it when they fight over which size-order they should sleep with her in... *sigh* At one point there is even a misplaced cameo from David Walliam's peddling his Lou from Little Britain schtick... It really speaks volumes that this was high brow comedy compared to the puerile depths Virgin Territory waded at, mainly because it provided two minutes when the sorry excuse for a script wasn't obsessed with talking about or depicting sex...

Christensen and Barton have zero on-screen chemistry, Tim Roth looks embarrassed by the dreck he is forced to read and only Matthew Rhys arrives at the end credits with a modicum of pride intact, delivering his over-the-top lines with gusto. The plot is rambling but inconsequential, with players making the most ludicrously uncharacteristic decisions just to force a risque scenario. At one point, beauty Elissa (Kate Groombridge) turns up randomly in a lake, just so she can be seen naked and meet a passing Dzerzhinsky and *gasp* fall in love with Pampinea's cast off. Well, there couldn't possibly be two minor characters left out of the happy-ever-after conclusion... Shakespeare this ain't. Hell, this even falls short of capturing a pinch of the fun or charm of 80s cult The Princess Bride, which David Leland is clearly inspiring to imitate. Pity his tongue is more interested in getting into all the damsel's knickers than it is in being in his cheek.

CR@B Verdict: Comedy? Adventure? Drama? Romance? Period piece? Porn? Virgin Territory is a pathetic and embarrassing mess of juxtaposing genres awkwardly shoehorned around a stream of juvenile innuendo and gratuitous nudity. Avoid like the plague.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

I Know You Got A Voice, Why You Don't Use It?

Sony Music Entertainment/RCA Records
Released: 7th June, 2010

BI-ON-IC… having ordinary human powers increased by or as if by the aid of
such [artificial… electromechanical] devices
In her powerful, soaring singing voice, Christina Maria Aguilera already has a power beyond ordinary, so quite why, when creating her fourth studio album, her army of newly-appointed “trendy” producers/co-writers felt the need to diminish the impact of her tremendously talented timbre with layers of blips, bleeps, bangs and beats is beyond me. Don’t misunderstand me; I adore an electro vibe to my music – just not at the cost of what makes an artist unique. Darren Hayes found the perfect balance between tune and tone with the extraordinary epic This Delicate Thing We’ve Made (2007), alas, in the case of Bionic; these artificial electromechanical devices have certainly not increased Xtina’s human powers, rather reduced her to a personality-void robotic karaoke machine.

Throughout her chameleonic 11 year career, Xtina has never rested long on one particular musical (or fashion) style. Unsurprisingly, her latest incarnation is unlike anything she has done before, though not for the better. The antithesis of focused, personal and relatable zenith Stripped (2002), Bionic is a busy, opulent, distended mess of sex talk, swearwords, fashion tips, brags and taunts. In other words: it’s hollow guff which makes a lot of noise saying fuck all. Yep, I swore. If you want to listen to Bionic, you had better get used to it, because being foulmouthed is clearly the epitome of maturity... I’m not simply referring to fanbase-splitting first single “Not Myself Tonight” (which, surprisingly, I truly liked, S&M video aside), as this is the case on a number of the album’s uptempo beasts.

The biggest stars should be setting the trends as they expand their legacies, not following them; therefore it is disappointing that Bionic feels like a regression both musically and lyrically, as well as a succession to a style of ‘cool’ music so divergent from everything Xtina has done before. For a woman who is now a wife and mother to be acting like a vapid, hormonal chav with tourettes is frankly embarrassing. Don’t even get me started on the deplorable “Woohoo” (featuring Nicki Mina), which sees the diva boast about how much we want to taste her lady parts (!!) in the same taboo-teasing way as the Pussycat Doll’s “Beep”, but without a modicum of the charm.

Bionic's 18-track first disc also suffers from inexcusable imbalance: a wild and offensive slew of eight club bangers leave you gasping for a respite from the audible onslaught, before a run of four ballads (and two unnecessarily individually-tracked skits) grind the pace to a halt. The tempo is ramped up for a blistering and purportedly empowering trio of tosh to round out the pack, with album closer and competitor for worst song (it’s a close call), “Vanity”, leaving us with such cringe-worthy boasts as:

I’m not cocky
I just love myself… bitch
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who’s the flyest bitch of them all?
Never mind I am (that bitch is so fucking sexy)
While the slower and more passionate numbers recapture a hint of the spark which made the public fall in love with the former teen star (the Linda Perry penned “Lift Me Up” is stunning, if not quite as memorable as number one single “Beautiful”), they would have been better placed interspersing the repetitive and distasteful trash that proceeded them rather than grouped together like a separate entity of secondary importance. Of the faster tracks, “Prima Donna” is a standout, if only because it doesn’t allude to sex every couple of lines. Oh, and it includes an (uncredited) interpolation of The Jackson’s “Can You Feel It” which is a truly commanding classic.

Ironically, four of the five tracks on disc two of Bionic’s {DELUXE EDITION} are stronger than 90% of the tripe on the main album. “Monday Morning” grabbed me instantly with its “Billie Jean”-like bass line and funky charm, while “Birds of Prey” is haunting in the fashion of Madonna's "Frozen", and “Stronger Than Ever” is an inspiring, melodious tunes. Only madcap 2nd track “Bobblehead” failed to impress me, with Xtina channelling her inner-Stefani and integrating an irksome airhead impression to intentionally and ‘ironically’ have a dig at vacuous gold-diggers with such witticisms as:

Talky talky talky but you don’t say shit
Got a way with words you give me nothing bitch

High brow stuff, this. Alas, this is the overriding problem with Bionic; far too often Aguilera opts for cheap, juvenile thrills over genuine, relatable substance, giving the whole album an artificial and overproduced glaze as if the wife and mother is endeavouring to appear sexy, edgy, fashionable and down wit da kids. Regrettably, the 29 year-old diva comes off as inauthentic and desperate with an uneven hodge-podge of an album mired by an excess of second-rate pap. Whatever happened to the Genie in a Bottle?

CR@B Verdict: There are a smattering of gems in this bloated opus, unfortunately you have to wade through heaps of vulgar, tacky rot before you reach the riches, and I wouldn’t blame you for tiring of the charade long before that. Artificial and inauthentic; Bionic’s robotics left me cold.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Lost In a Live Odyssey

Who? Delays
What? Live on their UK Tour
When? 7th June 2010
Where? Norwich Arts Centre
Why? A precursor to the release of their new album on June 21st

BUDGET DELAYS: “Delays: 9:30-10:15” proclaimed the chalkboard on the door of the Norwich Arts Centre’s refurbished-church auditorium ahead of last night’s 8pm opening. At a bargainous £10 a ticket (£11 on the door), I could hardly moan at a 45 minute set, well aware of the passion and vigour the boys from Southampton put into their exuberant and energetic performances. Yet on the previous five occasions I have been wowed by the genre-straddling band live since 2006, they have always played for more than an hour, and with more songs than ever in their repertoire ahead of this month’s release of fourth album Star Tiger, Star Ariel, a slim line runtime seemed somewhat contradictory.

Contradictory and, as it transpired, utter bollocks, as brother’s Greg and Aaron Gilbert, Colin Fox and Matthew “Rowly” Rowlinson eventually stepped off the stage at gone 10:40pm, luminous with sweat and pride after rocking the 300-plus crowd with a powerhouse set chock full of crowd-pleasing hits (“Nearer Than Heaven” which couldn't have been more apt given the venue, “Long Time Coming”, “Valentine”), fan favourite gems (“Lost In A Melody”, “Friends Are False”), surprise bombshells (“Bedroom Scene”, “Panic Attacks”) and glorious new delights (“Lost Estate”, “In Brilliant Sunshine”). Value for money or what?! Pity there was no merchandise for sale amid the carved stone pillars, though, as the band-designed t-shirts always make a fab addition to my wardrobe.

AUDITORY HIGHLIGHTS: As soon as the synth sounded out around the cavernous, high-ceiling hall for the pulsing intro to euphoric opener (and personal favourite) “Lost In A Melody”, I was ecstatic with glee, and the elation did not relent until long after we left the Norfolk province. This gig-induced high makes any endeavour to remember a full and chronological set list kinda impossible (I only had two pints all evening, I swear!), but needless to say, many-a-song was greeted with a roaring cheer and air-punch from yours truly.

“Friends Are False” was the only inclusion from 2008’s unjustly marginalised Everything’s The Rush, but rousing B-side “Panic Attacks” from the Love Made Visible EP (2007) went some way to addressing the issue. “Bedroom Scene” is something of a live rarity, a swirling, poignant album track from debut Faded Seaside Glamour (2004), and who could resist a dig at chavs in the form of “This Town’s Religion”? Not I.

PREVIOUSLY UNSUNG: With the album release being delayed (*titter and guffaw*) until after this tour has wrapped, the band have been previewing new tracks to audiences who haven’t yet heard them. This can be something of a gamble when played alongside celebrated hits and I’m sure wasn’t quite the idea when the tour dates were booked months in advance (that’s the unpredictability of the music industry for ya). Nevertheless, the new material was well appreciated by the attentive Arts Centre crowd (even if we couldn’t sing along) and our appetites were sufficiently whetted prior to June 21st with premieres of “Lost Estate” and “In Brilliant Sunshine” alongside the ethereal opener (and complimentary download) “Find A Home (New Forest Shaker)” and stunning new single “Unsung” (released next Monday), for which promotion was provided.

ENCORE HECKLES: As the majestic and anthemic stomper that is “Valentine” came to a heady close, frontman Greg announced that normally the band would leave the stage momentarily before returning for an encore, however tonight he would consult with drummer and seemingly appointed “Cap-i-tan” Rowly to see whether this theatrical contrivance would be necessary. Turns out it wasn’t and Greg launched his faultless falsetto into the glorious You See Colours (2006) opener “You and Me”, but not before an impatient attendee called out “Hurry up; I’ve got a train to catch!” Greg’s sympathetic reply? “Fuck off then.” Giggles at a gig – what more could you ask for? Ah yes: merchandise…

Alas, tonight’s stop at Haymakers in nearby Cambridge sees the end of this pre-album tour which began in May, but word on the forum is that a post-STSA promo tour is in the works for October (fingers crossed!). Plenty of time for me to memorise the lyrics to eleven more harmonious gems, then – and for the guys to get creative and design some funky album-flavoured t-shirts for me to fawn over!!

CR@B Verdict: A dazzling potpourri of exuberant delights from a band who seriously deserve to be playing bigger venues than a church in Norwich. That said, the intimate-yet-grandiose setting infused the crowd with the band’s colossal fervour, leading to a mighty night all round. Amen.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

After It, Therefore Because of It

15 – 22x42mins. approx. – 1999/2000
Created by: Aaron Sorkin
Executive Producers: Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme, John Wells
Starring: Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Moira Kelly


Okay, okay, so I'm a little late to the (political) party – ten years, in fact – but while the UK was going election mad these past few months (emphasis on the mad; need I say more than “bigotgate”?), I avoided all things parliamentary and turned my attention across the pond to the fictional Democratic administration of newly-elected President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), as depicted in Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning nose around the White House: The West Wing. Y’know, for topicality’s sake. And escapism… ahem.

I will openly confess that politics is not “my thang”, which is not to admit that I am ignorant of how our country is run, just that I do not feel suitably versed to form an accurate or objective opinion on so grand a matter, hence my initial reluctance to start out on this seven season, 154 episode journey detailing the inner workings of a government far larger than (little) Britain’s. Despite the high praises being sung by @ThomDownie and @StaceBannister (not to mention the armful of Emmy’s the show took home over its run), I was worried I would sit through hours of impenetrable politic-babble lost, confused and bored senseless, running for an encyclopaedia with every mention of the Federal Reserve or the Bill of Rights!! But when Play.com offered the entire 44-disc collection for a bargainous £34.99, who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?

And, boy, am I glad that I didn't, for my fears of drowning in a sea of political jargon were instantly allayed by the amiable, inviting and comfortable tone of the show, which you would image would be at odds with the pressure enacted upon Bartlet and his overworked staff and the breakneck speed with which they talk, (power) walk and do business; but these are well-rounded, likeable human beings, albeit with stressful, 18 hour jobs, and you become enthralled in their lives, their loves and their mistakes. Sure, each episode is centred on a bill, a budget, a poll, a meeting or the State of the Union – they are at work, after all – but fundamentally, The West Wing is more about the people behind the policies than it is about the policies themselves.

The main players bringing the drama and the humour to the White House, in no particular order, are: Communications Director Tony Zielger (Richard Schiff), his Deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Press Secretary “CJ” Cregg (Allison Janney), dedicated Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), wise-cracking Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Media Consultant Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) – more on her later – and the President’s young personal aide, Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), who becomes romantically involved with his bosses daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), much to an extremist group’s displeasure… Phew, that’s quite a cast, but they are so well written that they don’t remain strangers for long. Even President Bartlet conceals a soft, charming, overly-protective father beneath the spiky, brash leader of the country, while Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) is the only character I couldn't warm to, although he is sidelined so often that you forget he's even batting for the same side. Politically speaking.

Due to the hectic nature of the show, certain plot strands are introduced only to seemingly fizzle out for a large chunk of the season, then to rear back into focus later – Sam’s questionable befriending and plan to “reform” prostitute-come-student Laurie (Lisa Edelstein) and the career-crippling revelation of Leo’s pill-popping past, for example – whereas some arcs, such as Leo’s daughter Mallory’s (Allison Smith) potential romance with Sam, and enthusiastic reporter Danny Concannon’s (Timothy Busfield) patent-but-sweet determination to hook up with “CJ”, are bubbling away but still unresolved even after 22 episodes. But then that is life, and I found that aspect of The West Wing refreshing; it gave the (clearly intricately-plotted) series an edge of unpredictability; it wasn’t guaranteed that every plot point would be wrapped up in a tidy bow, or that it would even be given any screen time at all, but you were always certain that whatever subject was up for dissection – no matter how tragic, serious or trivial – you would be gripped, even when all plans go out the window and all hell breaks loose, such as in the tense, chilling and jaw-dropping season finale. Needless to say, Aaron Sorkin makes damn sure we’ll be back for Season Two.

Somebody who isn’t back for the sophomore year, however, is Mandy Hampton, the show’s most obvious misstep. Introduced in a blaze of controversy after defecting from ‘the other side’, Mandy all but vanishes towards the tail end of the season, reduced to a couple of throwaway lines an episode. It is a prime example of how American dramas are constantly evolving, even during the season, and clearly Aaron Sorkin was not happy with how the character fit into the ensemble cast. Nothing comes of the possible friction she could have caused to the team as Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and even when I thought she was finally going to get a big storyline to tackle (the leaking of her Republican memo outlining the President’s weaknesses), the potentially career-destroying mistake – which could have been a big exit for her character – is hushed up and trails off, with Mandy still sticking around to no real purpose. The last cause she fought for? Trying to import a replacement panda for Washington zoo... says it all, really.

Essentially, even in its debut season while most shows would still be finding their feet, The West Wing is confident and well crafted drama, superbly balancing the staffer’s torrent of duties with their turbulent private lives to create a winding, exciting and restless show which is personable without being soppy, hilarious without being slapstick, demanding without being dense, dramatic without being grave and intellectual without alienating or dumbing down for politics dunces (such as myself). I don’t think I have laughed as much at a show as I did when seeing Josh (a wonderfully congenial chap) waking from a hangover at his desk – mid-meeting – wearing full fisherman attire, or witnessing “CJ” attempting to speak having been anesthetised by the dentist. Whoever said politics was boring?! Oh, right… oops!

CR@B Verdict: Even a decade on, Aaron Sorkin's frantic ensemble drama is still a masterclass in perfectly-paced politics played out by finely tuned, well rounded human beings. Sharp, compelling and intelligent, yet warm and witty, too: Season one of The West Wing certainly gets my vote!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Another Bite at the Zombie

18 – 92mins – 1990
Written by: George A. Romero
Based on the original film written by: George A. Romero and John Russo
Directed by: Tom Savini
Starring: Patricia Tallman, Tony Todd, Tom Towles, McKee Anderson, William Butler, Bill Mosley, Katie Finneran, Heather Mazur, Pat Logan


Given the recent slew of ostentatious horror remakes of questionable necessity and debatable quality (Nightmare on Elm Street , Psycho, The Hitcher, My Bloody Valentine 3D, Prom Night – need I go on?), it is understandable that you would approach any modernization of a genre classic with great trepidation. Nonetheless, this early ‘90s adaptation of George A. Romero's hallowed Night of the Living Dead is certainly not to be groaned at, granting a modern audience who would have scoffed at the black and white, budget-conscious 1968 effects a reason to look over their shoulder as they visit the cemetery; they’re coming to get yooouuu, Generation X-Box!

Obviously, Night 1990 isn't in the same groundbreaking league as the archetypal original with which it shares its name, but it is still a spirited and claustrophobically chilling triumph. Tellingly, the remake wasn't a studio-enforced cash-in on the cult zombie brand, but had the full backing of the “Grandfather of the Dead”. Indeed, Romero co-produced and rewrote the script he originally worked on over two decades earlier with John Russo, while effects supremo Tom Savini – having previously lent his gory stylisation to Dawn... (1979) and Day of the Dead (1985), to much acclaim – got the chance to complete the trilogy (ish), and was even handed directing duties. Additionally, Romero roped in a lot of the team who helped him realise his 1968 vision to recapture the magic all over again.

The plot, for the most part, sticks to the original’s winningly simple outline: a small group of strangers hole up in a backwater Pennsylvanian dwelling to survive a paranormal onslaught as the recently deceased rise from the grave and go on an insatiable hunt for human flesh. More credible and repugnantly gory make-up aside, where Night 1990 differs most apparently is in the characterisation, particularly that of lead female Barbara (Patricia Babylon 5 Tallman), who was criticised in the original for being rather, well, useless (the shock of the supernatural scenario sends her into a state of shock for 90% of the film, which, apparently is sexist and demeaning to females everywhere). This time around she is a more proactive and dynamic heroine who is handier with a gun and more forthright.

A further derivation from its source material is the morning-after epilogue, which substitutes the genuine controversy of having survivor Ben (now played by Tony Candyman Todd) mistaken for a zombie and shot down by trigger-happy yokels,* for enforced ‘shock’. Returning to the house of horror, Barbara murders self-centred survivor and all-round arsehole Harry Cooper (Tom Towles) as he climbs down from his private attic hideaway, before informing the hicks “Here’s another one for the fire”. Now, don’t get me wrong, the man was a belligerent, wife-beating, unsupportive monster who definitely had it coming, but for Barbara to murder a human so callously seems somewhat out of character. I mean, there’s forthright, and there’s forthright! But, hey, I guess a night battling the Living Dead is somewhat disillusioning to a person’s sense of morality, and who am I to judge until I have been in her position?

CR@B Verdict: Drained of the Cold War allegory attributed to the revolutionary original, but a visually effective zombie horror nonetheless; Night 1990 revises the character flaws which besmirched the ‘60s classic without bastardising the Living Dead brand.
* Racism? According to George, Ben was originally written as a white man and the part simply given to the best actor, Duane Jones, who happened to be black.