Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Right Pair of Peacocks

12A – 107mins – 2010
Written by: Chris Henchy and Adam McKay
Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Eva Mendes, Rob Riggle, Damon Wayans Jnr., Ray Stevenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwanye Johnson


[SPOILERS] Five minutes into this buddy-cop genre spoof and Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have just smashed their Chevy through the side of a double decker bus during a routine drugs bust. Guns are blazin’, hoods are poppin’ and tyres are screechin’; it’s hyperbolic mayhem and the A-listers are overacting their asses off, but it’s funny stuff, particularly when Jackson wisecracks the line: “Did anyone call 9-1-Holy-Shit?!” I went into the cinema with zero expectations, but after this full throttle opening, my hopes were propelled.

Big mistake, for this was The Other Guy’s comedic zenith and very soon it fell flat on its face on a concrete sidewalk. As the film’s title implies, this film doesn’t focus on the shoot-first-ask-questions-later celebri-cops who make the front pages and win the hearts of the community, no matter the carnage. This film is all about the little guys, the pencil-pushers, the office bods who get nada recognition for the stacks of paperwork they fill out behind the scenes.

Enter Detective’s Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Marc Walhberg). They will be your, ahem, “entertainment” for the following 100-odd-minutes, although they will never come close to matching the brilliance of the warm-up act. Yes, sure, I understand that this is the point – Gamble is a naïve, play-it-save cop who idolises the big boys but not enough to follow in their footsteps; Hoitz is frustrated by the lack of action he gets after being demoted following a firing incident – but I also expect some laughs from a comedy.

I’m not over exaggerating – indeed I may be being slightly generous – when I say I cracked a lowly trio of smiles once Gamble and Hoitz took centre stage. I’ve never been a huge fan of Will Ferrell’s confused adolescent style of comedy (half the time he just says unfunny things in an elevated and pathetic voice), but even I was expecting more from his fourth collaboration with director Adam Anchorman McKay.

My prevailing issue with The Other Guys is the repetitive nature of the humour. Gamble isn’t cool, he certainly isn’t a looker, yet somehow he gets all the hottest women and fails to recognise just how lucky he is to have landed a wife as smoking as “plain” Eva Mendes – but this point is drilled into us so often that you can almost anticipate when it will be recycled next.

The same is true of Hoitz’s flawed analogy of him being a peacock who wants to fly and their Captain’s (Michael Keaton) innumerable coincidental references to TLC songs. In moderation they would have been a hoot, but after a while they begin to bore and I spent most of the film deadpan and counting the wrinkles on Michael Keaton’s face (good god hasn’t he aged?!).

The plot is barely worth talking about, such is its predictability. In fairness writers Henchy and McKay did attempt to spruce up the age-old underdogs-uncover-major-corruption-but-nobody-believes-them-until-it’s-nearly-too-late shebang with the twist that multi-billionaire David Erschon’s (Steeve Coogan; underused) lottery scam is actually being taken out of the NYPD’s retirement fund, but this merely convolutes the light-hearted tone with no comedic reward.

In a CR@B Shell: After a hectic and hilarious opening, The Other Guys slows to the beat of a very different film. Ferrell’s regular routine wears thin and Wahlberg’s shouty straight man irritates in this buddy-flop yawn-fest.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Trilogy That Goes Out With a Bang

15 – 148mins – 2009
Screenplay by: Jonas Frykberg and Ulf Ryberg
Based on the best-selling novel by: Stieg Larsson
Directed by: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Annika Hallin, Jacob Ericksson, Sofia Ledarp, Anders Ahlbom, Micke Spreitz, Georgi Staykov, Hans Alfredson, Lennart Hjulström, Jan Holmquist, Niklas Hjulström


[MAJOR SPOILERS] Having wrapped and been released in native Sweden over the course of last year, there are mere months between the UK's 2010 theatrical roll out of the Millennium trilogy, adapted from the phenomenal tomes penned by the late Stieg Larsson. Clearly Yellow Bird and Momentum Pictures decided to strike while the tattoo needle's hot, even going so far as to change director after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, to speed up production.

But having become so utterly enraptured with the tragically gripping tale of untraditional heroine Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), even a couple of months is too long a wait for this CR@B. So when the opportunity arose to see an exclusive preview screening of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest – shown as part of the 30th Cambridge Film Festival – I jumped at the chance with both claws...

Picking up exactly where we left off, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nvqvist) is still on his quest to prove that beleaguered, hospital-ridden Lisbeth – gunned down and buried alive in The Girl Who Played With Fire's tense conclusion – has been the live-long victim of a diabolical government cover-up to protect the identity of her Soviet-defecting brute of a father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov). Hiring his sister, Annika (Annika Hallin), to be Lisbeth's lawyer, it soon becomes clear that there are people out there who will go to dispicable lengths to keep the scandalous truth buried.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth's half-brother, the blond hulk Roland Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), is on the run having been found guilty of the triple murders which Lisbeth was previously suspected of – surely the terminator in goth's clothing won't let this monster just scamper into the shadows without retribution for his crimes? As the saga closer, loose end tie-er-upper – and with the source novel weighing in at a door-stopping 743 pages – there was certainly a lot for screenplay writers Jonas Fryberg and Ulf Ryberg to cram in to Hornets' Nest, even with 148minutes to play with.

This is not to say that Stieg Larsson’s periphrastic prose is followed religiously. Millennium Editor Erika Berger’s (Lena Endre) defection to mainstream newspaper Svenske Morgen-Posten, for instance, is completely ignored, while the resultant stalker subplot is modified and consumed into the grand story arc, with culpability shifting from an SMP co-worker to the shady “Section” pressuring Millennium into not publishing Lisbeth’s incriminating story.

It was a bold – and, in my opinion, favourable – alteration, which leads to a lot of scenes taking place at the base of operations; the oft-sidelined investigative magazine's offices. Indeed, it would have been a thoroughly successful revision had the link between the threats received by Erika, Mikael and Annika been better established. As it is, the less observant viewer may feel like this plotline merely trails off after Mikael asks Lisbeth’s hacker pal Plague (Tomas Köhler, looking like he has shed half his body weight after Dragon Tattoo, but still wearing the same clothes!!) to investigate.

But this trilogy has never been one to pander to the inattentive, and it is all the more successful for not dumbing down for the casual viewer. Many an in-joke or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight reference reward the novel’s most anal fans (the overly expensive coffee machine on Lisbeth’s counter, her love of Billy’s Deep Pan Pizzas, etcetera), while the exponential plotting does a great job of referencing back to prior events. It is no wonder the films were expanded and split into a six episode serial in Sweden: they are but parts of a greater whole.

Whereas the previous instalment did occasionally fall into the adaptation pothole of zipping from one information-crammed scene to another without feeling like a sinuous entity, the same cannot be said for this latest film, which grips you from the hospital-based opening, building upon Stieg's intricate characterisation and playing with your anxieties, morals and humanity until it hits the trilogy pay-off of the courthouse crescendo: Salander versus the system. If you don't want to “whoop!” when Lisbeth struts into the courtroom then this isn't the saga for you.

Hornets’ Nest’s pacing is relentless, and the film never drags, despite its duration. It really doesn’t feel like over two and a half hours when Mikael knocks on Lisbeth’s door in the trilogy’s final scene. What is left unsaid is far more powerful than the pleasantries they exchange in Lisbeth’s doorway, and I was desperately willing the pair to fall into each other’s arms. That they don’t give in to the cliché of a happy ending is far more resonant, but it does leave me gagging for the rumoured fourth instalment in the literary series to see the light of day, regardless of how far Stieg got before his untimely death.

In a CR@B Shell: Justice has been served to Stieg’s legacy with this intense, absorbing and high-octane thriller: Hornets’ Nest is a pacey power-punch of a final chapter which leaves you gasping for more. It is hard to see how Hollywood ’s impending remake can improve upon this quintessential exposé.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Cops and Rotters

18 – 93mins – 2009
Written by: Arnaud Bordas, Yannick Dahan, Stephane Moissakis, Benjamin Rocher
Directed by: Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher
Starring: Claude Perron, Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney, Aurélien Recoing, Doudou Masta, Antoine Oppenheim, Jo Prestia, Yves Pignot


Whenever a blockbuster blows up at the box office you can guarantee that a cascade of shlocky copycat releases with unashamedly similar covers will bombard supermarket DVD shelves to make a quick buck off of a certified brand name: Paranormal Activity had Paranormal Ascendancy (they even changed the title from 3AM), Avatar had child-friendly Battle For Terra and Sherlock Holmes had... Sherlock Holmes (though you'd be hard-pressed to muddle the two given how Sherlock vs. Monsters – as it is known in the US – has a friggin' T-Rex photoshopped across the cover!!).

You would be forgiven for thinking that French tower block zombie flick The Horde was a similarly public-duping rip off of Spanish tower block zombie flick [REC] and its recent sequel (indeed the pair debuted on UK DVD in the same week – way to go, Momentum!). You would be forgiven, but you would be wrong. Locale aside, whereas [REC] is a terrifying, claustrophobic first-person nightmare, The Horde is a more blatantly ballsy testosterone-fuelled gore-fest. Think 28 Days Later meets From Dusk Til Dawn.

The Horde's premise is so simple and the details so sketchy, it's clear that all plot points are just an excuse to have a madcap smackdown between cops, gangsters and zombies – and there's nothing wrong with that when the carnage is as wickedly fun and unreserved as it is here. We never do find out why the dead are coming back to live for a fleshy nibble, but it is a winningly vicious depiction nonetheless: the feral former-corpses are more like possessed coke-heads than shuffling meat piles.

As the ever-massing horde ravage the duelling human teams down to three-a-piece, the diverse survivors (cautiously) join forces to battle their way down the stairwell to ground level, slaughtering – and in one uncomfortable scene, torturing – as they go. With no-one willing to trust anyone else, the group dynamic is constantly shifting, until you realise that all but two of the characters are unsympathetic, backstabbing arseholes.

A word of warning: the police do not look or act at all like figures of authority, which does initially confuse. Their tower block siege is entirely motivated by revenge for a fallen comrade, while their “plan” of creeping in via the building's back-door wearing balaclavas and armed with guns seems unforgivably amateurish. Even the gang cannot believe how foolish the unit are for having no back-up. Were it not for their badges, I would have had a very hard time believe this “crack unit of elite officers” were anything other than rival terrorists.

Furthermore, latecomer Réne (Yves Pignot) – a racist, old-school resident with an axe in his hand and a sadistic twinkle in his eye – initially injects some humour into the film with his charismatic outbursts and in-your-face attitude, but he quickly irritates and his animated, over the top acting reminded me of the sort of stereotypical character you would find in a Studio Ghibli film.

But enough with the downside, because all of this is forgiven the minute the claret starts spraying, the limbs start flying and the action kicks in. This is where The Horde flourishes. Speaking of kicking, acclaim must go to Alain Figlarz, the film's choreographer, for some stunningly spirited combat sequences (for zombies that run can also fight back), even if the editor with the penchant for replaying the knockout blows from various angles and at various speeds really should be demoted to Steven Seagel vehicles forthwith...

In a CR@B Shell: A blistering and brutal bloodbath of bullets, bodies, biters and ballsy bad-asses: The Horde is a riotous and unsympathetic feast for hardcore horror hounds who demand nothing but carnage.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Psychic Primate

18 – 108mins – 1988
Screenplay by: George A. Romero
Based on the novel by: Michael Stewart
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Janine Turner, William Newman, Boo


Despite being George A. Romero's first studio release and basking in the twilight of 1985's Day of the Dead, it's still not hard to see why Monkey Shines is one of the horror legend's lesser known works. For starters, the high concept premise – for all its good intentions of delivering an anti-animal experimentation message – sounds utterly ape-shit crazy, if you'll excuse the simian schtick.

Paralysed from the neck down following a car accident, Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) becomes a bitter and enraged young man. His frustration is anything but quelled when his “clinical c*nt” (classic line) of a girlfriend (Janine Turner) leaves him for his surgeon (Stanley Tucci) in his time of need, and his house nurse (Christine “Mrs Romero” Forrest) is an incompetent, unsympathetic bitch.

Allan is given reason to smile again, however, when his Mother Nature-tampering scientist of a best mate, Geoffrey Fisher (Jon Pankow) donates his smartest simian subject, Ella (Boo), to be Allan's legs and hands. That's right folks, Ella is trained to be Allan's slave, obeying his every order and request.

However, Geoff fails to mention to his wheelchair bound pal that Ella has been receiving regular injections of human brain matter in his laboratory, and soon the genetically modified junkie monkey starts developing a bizarre jealous streak, anticipating Allan's every need and even carrying out his most depraved subconscious wishes...

See what I mean? On paper (and computer screen), Monkey Shines sounds like a risible sub-Stephen King horror spoof. I'm still struggling to work out exactly how being injected with a dead girl's brain tissue can give Ella a psychic connection to Allan, but it's to Romero's credit that this novel adaptation – for all it's cheesy charm and gimmicky gubbins – still works as a psychological horror.

Allan's helplessness lends the film a great layer of tension, and Ella's psychotic splurges deliver the gore (although you will be disappointed if you are expecting blood and guts on a zombie chomping scale; this is more of a thriller). I particularly liked the close up shots of Allan with elongated canines, which gave a perverse and supernatural slant to this (pseudo-)scientific satire, though I won't comment on the scene where Ella licks blood from his lips, and what that may say about Allan's primal urges...

The plot takes a little while to get going (30 minutes in you do start to question whether it truly is a horror after all), and Begle's over-egged squinty-eyed bitter act is a little hard to swallow, especially when he starts a foul-mouthed rant at his over helpful mother (Joyce Van Patten), but if you prefer your horror more thoughtful and aloof and only delivering the bloody goods when the plot dictates (rather than a non-stop slurry of inane torture porn), then you could do far worse than a dose of Monkey Shines.

In a CR@B Shell: It isn't clinically perfect – or hide-behind-your-hands horrific – but Monkey Shines does well to make a sophisticated and creepy supernatural thriller out of a bananas concept. Bravo to Romero for taking a risk with an unconventional caper which most people would throw faeces at before giving a chance.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Country Strife

15 – 111mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Moira Buffini
Based on the graphic novel by: Posy Simmonds
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Roger Allum, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, Josie Taylor


[SPOILERS] I was utterly beguiled by the bright and frolicsome trailer for Stephen The Queen Frears’s film adaptation of Posy Simmonds’s country-set graphic novel. I wasn’t previously aware of the comic strip adventures of Tamara Drewe, but the theatrical trailer made it look like a light-hearted and wry dig at the rural middle classes. Plenty of teasing pokes at animal-mad, shotgun-carrying farmers who have no idea what a Prius is, then, I thought.

Bridget Jones in the country and The Archers with added sauce were two critical comparisons which filled me with hope for this British romantic comedy. Many-a-glowing 4 star review didn’t hurt, either, nor did the chance to see cutie Gemma Arteton squeeze into those denim hotpants… ahem.

Oh boy was I mistaken. No, not about the hotpants; indeed I cannot fault Ms. Arteton’s spunky performance as the eponymous music journalist who returns to her childhood homestead to prep the property for sale, ruffling many a local feather in the process. Alas, all of my other – more highbrow – expectations for Tamara Drewe were quickly quashed under a stampede of petrified cattle.

Firstly, I found it to be a thoroughly shallow film. Miss Drewe returns to idyllic rural Devon with a new nose. No, not a new nose, she points out, but a hulk of cartilage lighter nevertheless. A spattering of torid split-screen flashbacks reveal her once humungous honk – to little comedic effect – while all the men go wobbly at the knee for the grown-up city fittie.
Despite this universal admiration, Tamara swiftly finds herself in a futile engagement to indie drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), a hideously egotistical and offensive tosser with a short fuse who is anything but the marrying kind – but, hey, who cares about all that personality bollocks when he’s a big star?!

Secondly, the film was let down by a raft – nay, an ocean-liner – of horrifically unpleasant characters. Everyone is either a morally bankrupt bed-hopper, a foul-mouthed, uncouth twat or a spineless wimp. Crime novelist Nicolas Hardiment (Roger Allum) is continually cheating on his loyal housewife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), for no good reason except “because you let me”, then expects instant forgiveness from his weak-willed spouse, who all too often accepts...

Yep, even the “good” guys we’re meant to identify with are flecked with flaws here. Take genuine farm-boy and Tamara’s former fling, Alan Cobb (Luke Evans): he secretly still fancies her, but is so crippled by self-deprecation that he sulks in the background moaning about how hard to has to work, “making do” by using the local barmaid (Josie Taylor) to fill his wellington boots, then instantly forgets sluttish Tamara’s rampant indiscretions the second she cries on his shoulder! This is meant to be romantic?!!

Bored schoolgirls Jody (Jessica Barden) and Casey (Charlotte Christie) quickly cross the line from cheeky delinquents to lawbreaking criminals – all in the name of obsession – while even tame Thomas Hardy analyst Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), staying at the Hardiment’s writer’s retreat, scuppers any chance of audience sympathy when he scarpers the minute the shit hits the fan in a wholly disagreeable and bloody cow-pat of a climax.

For all its “ironic” and “satiric” intent, I found the storyline to be far too dark and, quite frankly, depressing to be enjoyable: twee Devonshire landscapes - and Gemma Arteton - aside, Tamara Drewe doesn’t paint a very attractive picture of the English countryside - or its untrustworthy dwellers - at all.

In a CR@B Shell: Shedding its quaint country charm for a deluge of sinister, shallow and sleazy shenanigans, Tamara Drewe is an undignified crime of a “romantic comedy” which left my nose out of joint.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Fusty Fanged Federation

Book Review: UPRISING
Written by: Scott G. Mariani
Published in the UK by: AVON
Released: 10th June 2010


Best known for his high-octane series of Dan Brown-alike mystery thrillers starring intrepid ex-SAS protagonist Ben Hope, Scott G. Mariani's latest prose project – the first in a proposed new saga – is something of a departure for the acclaimed British author. Welcome to modern day London with a supernatural, err, bite... welcome to the world of the Vampire Federation.

Established by the undead hordes to keep their blood-feasting urges from being detected by the technologically savvy human population of the 21st century, the codes of the Vampire Federation are, alas, not adhered to by all neck biters. A rogue sect of traditionalists (or “trads”) lead by ferocious rebel vamp Gabriel Stone are out to bring down the dictatorial Federation, destroy its force of special agents and allow free reign for the fanged creatures of the night.

It was Scott G. Mariani's desire to give the hallmarks of classic vampire mythology – namely those set out in the seminal masterpiece Dracula, which the author openly acknowledges as far more than a passing inspiration – a fresh and modern spin. Hence his action packed world of interspecies civil war is stocked with many an advanced gimmick and gizmo (although cynics may say "story-servicing cheats") which Bram Stoker could scarcely have envisaged: from an arsenal of vamp-dusting weapons, to pills which allow the night-walkers to get a suntan, and injections which wipe the recent memory of any neck-punctured mortal.

Of course, this is one mighty popular sub-genre of horror, and many recent films, series and novels have beaten Uprising to the punch. Blade, Nightwatch, Twilight, the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse chronicles, 30 Days of Night and Daybreakers are but a few mainstream examples of modern twists to the age-old antagonists. For all Mariani's best intentions, this leaves Uprising with a terribly trite and stale stench. From the shadow strewn back-alley attacks, to the cloak-clad “baddies” with their secret dungeon graveyards and ghoulish minions masquerading as butlers: we've seen it all before.

Uprising's second half improves slightly over the unremarkable and clichéd first 250-odd pages, as venegance-powered human hero DI Joel Solomon finally teams up with Federation agent Alex Bishop and the odd couple head to Venice to track down legendary artefact – and ultimate vampire repellent – the cross of Ardaich (yep, that's another "story-servicing cheat").

With a clear goal, the novel picks up pace and feels more cohesive and focused than the globe-jumping mess of the first half where every bite-sized chapter - prefixed with a different locational brief - introduces yet another two dimensional character; from page to page you don't know where you will be, or who with. Were the chapters not so short (3-5 pages is the average, with many a blank page speeding up the journey) and the writing not so sprightly and easy to digest, I would have given up on Uprising long before the story began to grip me.

Mariani's prose has a strongly cinematic feel. This author clearly prefers writing action to detail, so although the story flies by, you never feel truly immersed. It is as if Uprising was written with one eye on a multi-million dollar Hollywood adaptation and Mariani went all-out to deliver what would look the most mind-blowingly epic on the big screen: there's a Thames speedboat chase, a fight clambering on the London Eye, a high speed car crash and a Dracula-riffing Romanian castle climax. Frankly, it all comes across as a little over indulgent.

The same is true of the over abundance of “fucks,” “shits,” needlessly graphic deaths and out of place sex scenes: I came away with the opinion that Mariani was out to drive home the point that his vampire novel is hip, extreme, current and for adults only. Unfortunately, this all just comes across as a contrived and immature attempt to assert that Uprising definitely isn't Twilight, which was already obvious from the first hint of fang.

In a CR@B Shell: A leisurely read, but Scott G. Mariani's supernatural horror debut brings nothing new to an overcrowded genre. For all its desperate attempts at “modern,” “edgy” and “extreme”, Uprising is a predictable and tired novel which is more hackneyed than homage.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Curry On Killing

12 – 97mins – 2010
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha
Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
Starring: Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Sally Hawkins, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Shaheen Khan, Ash Varrez, Adlyn Ross, Zoë Wanamaker, Jimi Mistry, Mark Addy


Dumped by her fiancé six months ago, downtrodden Roopi Sethi (Goldy Notay) has let herself go: lacking in confidence and comfort eating to fill the void left in her life, much to the distress of her meddling, matrimony-mad mother (Shabana Azmi).

Mortified by the unsympathetic rejections her daughter receives, the widowed Mrs Sethi takes her marriage obsession to a preposterous extreme by killing off the shallow parents of her daughter’s potential suitors in all manner of Indian food related ways (suffocated by naan bread, fed curry until their stomach explodes, stabbed by kebab skewer, you get the gist).

I can thoroughly comprehend why director Gurinder Bend It Like Beckham Chadha’s latest Ealing-set cultural comedy was slaughtered by critics; watching the spirits of Mrs Sethi’s victims return to help the exasperated (and totally implausible) serial killer find love for her daughter is an abysmally wretched premise.

Futhermore, the barmy plot is totally predictable – the minute old family friend turned Detective Inspector, Raj “Googly” Murthy (Sendhil Heroes Ramamurthy), is tasked with going undercover as Roopi’s boyfriend to determine a motive for the crime the police believe she is guilty of, you just know it will lead to nuptials – and I have a real problem with the off-kilter morals of a film which so easily forgives a murderer.*

That being said, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife – from the pun in the title to a Carrie-riffing psychic hullabaloo at a wedding reception – obviously knows it is over-the-top pap, and it plays up to it with unrepentant verve. The ghostly make up looks ridiculously theatrical, the Asian influence brings a deluge of music and colour, and the star speckled cast – particularly Steve “T4” Jones cameoing as a newsreporter and Sally Hawkins as kooky spiritualist Linda – camp it up and play for laughs.

The film’s nauseating lack of refinement definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but how can you take a film seriously where Zoë Wanamaker chokes on a cake laced with rat poison and Mark Addy gets a pair of secateurs in the groin?

In a CR@B Shell: Bonkers, brash and naan of it makes a shred of sense, but It’s a Wonderful Afterlife falls on the spirited side of silly. Gurinder Chadha’s latest won't win over any new fans, but it's a floridly farcical distraction from reality.
* Where’s the korma in that?! Boom boom!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Hard Sell

15 – 96mins – 2009
Story by: Randy T. Dinzler
Written by: Derrick Borte
Directed by: Derrick Borte
Starring: David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Glenne Headly, Lauren Hutton, Christine Evangelista, Chris Williams


[SPOILERS] Perfect house, perfect car, perfect gadgets, perfect kids... perfect lives? The Joneses may be the new family in suburbia, but the neighbourhood is already green with envy and struggling to keep up with these ultimate trend setters. Little do they know that this perfect middle-upper class “family” is actually a team of stealth marketers out to sell their manufactured way of life.

If you haven’t yet seen the film and you’re angry with yourself for reading far enough into my review to ruin the twist, then don’t worry; even the film’s tagline gives the game away, somewhat diminishing the shock value of seeing promiscuous high schooler Jenn Jones (Amber Heard) strip naked and get into bed with her “father”, Steve (David Duchovny), twenty minutes in.

I’m sure there are film fans out there who will buy in to The Joneses ironic and satirical nature; the gorgeous yuppies, shiny top end products and sunny suburbs masking the dark stab at consumerist society which underlies this noughties social commentary. Unfortunately, it just didn’t click with me. It felt like the film didn’t really know what it was trying to be, so held back from being too satirical, too dark, too funny, too dramatic or too clever to confidently sell itself.

It probably doesn’t help that Steve – a former golf pro and car salesman who is new to this unusual line of work – is such a genial and moral lead character that he even wins over his clinically austere “wife” and long-term businesswoman Kate (Demi Moore). You simply cannot hate a man who - no matter how much shit his dysfunctional family unit get into - you always know will do the honourable thing.

Conversely, the film’s attempts to be hard hitting and edgy – the aforementioned “incest”, a car crash, “son” Mick’s (Ben Hollingsworth) sexual persuasion, desperate neighbour Larry’s (Gary Cole) downfall, a shock discovery in the swimming pool – seem somewhat out of sync with the more lightweight bulk of the narrative, leading to a very patchy whole.

I guess this is why The Joneses – for all its gallant intentions – was gathering dust on the studio’s shelf for so long after it was filmed; the marketing bods were probably as bewildered as I was by how to sell this genre-clash concoction and didn’t want to sink too much capital into a gamble. Which is somewhat ironic given the film’s none-too-subtle assertion that it’s easy to sell anything to the gullible and jealous masses.

In a CR@B Shell: By no means a generic run-of-the-mill comedy, The Joneses is a daring fable of our materialist time. Alas, it stops just shy of delivering on its barbed concept’s promises, and I failed to invest in this uneven product.

Angelic Possession

15 – 97mins – 2010
Written by: Peter Schink and Scott Stewart
Directed by: Scott Stewart
Starring: Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Adrianne Palicki, Charles S. Dutton, Jon Tenney, Willa Holland, Kate Walsh, Jeanette Miller, Kevin Durand, Doug Jones


God has lost faith in humanity. Again. But whereas the last time he summoned a flood to wash over the land, this time he has charged his legion of Angels with the task of possessing the weak-minded to wipe out those who put up a fight. Only one – Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) – dares defy the Lord's word, and he is expelled from Heaven and dropped to Earth.

He lands in Los Angeles (where else?), where our protagonist cuts the wings from his own back and raids a Korean gun factory for an arsenal of automatic weaponry. Apprehending a police car, Michael heads to the aptly named Paradise Falls, an out of the way diner cut off from civilisation in the Mojave Desert, to ward off the Apocalypse and save humanity by overseeing the impending birth of mankind's saviour... All in a day's work.

It's a sumptuously mouth-watering cinematic prospect: God's supernatural minions shedding their angelic façades to face off against a pocket of human resistance. Imagine the fun directors could have with that unholy battle to end all battles? Alas, a prospect it remains, as it seems the creative force behind Legion's cameras had far too much fun with the CGI-crammed face-off sequences, that they forgot to string them together with a logical or enrapturing narrative.

Watching an ice cream vendor (Doug “Abe Sapien” Jones) roll up to the diner in his jingle tooting van before his limbs elongate freakishly and he lumbers spider-like towards the holed-up patrons, or a kindly OAP (Jeanette Miller) sprout animal fangs and crawl on the ceiling taking chunks out of people's necks is all thrilling stuff (the granny scene in particular is a real hoot, although that may be because it was the first), but a good movie individual set-pieces do not make.

Particularly not when the plot doesn't make a lick of sense (why do the Angels even need to possess people rather than just attack themselves? Why did God let things end the way they did?) and the ever-diminishing band of human characters do little to evoke our sympathy. Everyone has a mountain of issues and all they seem to do is argue. There's the diner owner Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid), his naïve-but-loving son Jeep (Lucas Black), the hook-handed, bible-loving cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton) and the everywoman waitress, Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), who is pregnant with the second coming (although the writers don't have the balls to say so outright).

They are joined in the desert by frustrated family the Anderson's – Howard (Jon Tenney), Sandra (Kate Walsh) and their rebellious teenage daughter Audrey (Willa The O.C. Holland) – and single dad Kyle (Tyrese Gibson). The film rambles from eye-popping set-piece to set-piece, killing off the braindead cast in all manner of madcap ways, and there is such an almighty gap between the prologue which introduces Michael and the fallen Angel's appearance at the diner that you've almost forgotten what the point of any of it is and you're just gorging on the spectacle.

By the time Angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) belatedly turns up to kill Charlie's baby (yep, she gives birth) and finish the job Michael refused, the film is beyond redemption and all logic has been thrown out the window of a speeding truck. The possessed hordes, it transpires, cannot actually harm the baby, allowing Jeep, Charlie, her child and Audrey to walk straight through them and drive away, while the poor new born is able to survive being dropped and a high-speed car crash without suffering a single boo-boo!!

You know what they say, God: if you want a job done properly... don't hire Peter Schink and Scott Stewart.

In a CR@B Shell: Legion's intriguing premise is crucified for the sake of a handful of absurdly wacky independent set pieces, hung together by an incomprehensibly weak narrative delivered through vacuous characters. All in all a doomsday disappointment.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Desert Stormtroopers

15 – 84mins – 2009
Written by: Nick Damon and Sandy Collora
Directed by: Sandy Collora
Starring: Damion Poitier, Clark Bartram, Isaac C. Singleton Jnr, Erin Gray, Simon Potter, Sandy Collora


Back in 2003 the internet was abuzz with acclaim for an 8 minute short titled Batman: Dead End. Dark, gritty and atmospheric, the fanboy’s wet dream saw the caped crusader apprehend a dangerously unhinged Joker down a grotty back alley, before the pair were set upon by an Alien(!) and a pack of Predators(!!). For a fanmade composition, it was seriously impressive stuff and you had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before the director would be offered an opportunity to transfer his talents to the big screen…

7 years later and Hunter Prey is that transfer. Unlike his (multi) established universe-borrowing showreel, Sandy Collora’s feature length debut is an original chronicle and vision, swapping Dead End’s superheroes in the shadows for sci-fi soldiers in sunshine and sand, although it nonetheless makes no attempts to hide the auteur’s obvious stylistic influences. Let’s just call it a homage.

Set in a future engaged in intergalactic war, Hunter Prey hones in on the plight of a small group of soldiers – the survivors of crashed vessel the Prometheus – who must track down their escaped prisoner, Jericho (Clark Bartram), on a barren desert world. It’s a simple cat-and-mouse plot which twists and turns the more you learn about the planetary conflicts which rage amongst the stars, and your allegiance persistently alters as supplies dwindle and the adversary ratio is reduced to 1:1.

Visually, the instantly noticeable influence is classic Star Wars, with the commando’s helmet and armour getup looking like Boba Fett meets Iron Man, and the rocky Mexico location baring more than a passing resemblance to Tatooine: sand, after all, is sand. But tonally the film is more akin to Starship Troopers, Planet of the Apes and the Arnie vs. Predator climax to the original Predator. What we have here is a prime example of pulp science fiction; fun and simple on the outside but intelligent at the core.

With a slim cast of six – one of which is Collara himself, and another the voice of the soldier’s computer intelligence, Clea (Erin Gray) – and an obviously minute budget, Hunter Prey does a fantastic job with limited resources: the special effects (when rendered) do not shake you out of the fantasy, the alien make up is striking, the action is unrestrained and the in-universe aesthetic is worn, torn and believably lived in.

I will admit that it is sometimes a strain to catch exactly what Commander Karza (Issac C. Singleton Jnr) and Lieutenant Centauri 7 (Damion Poitier) are saying beneath their lumbering helmets (an issue confounded by the lack of a subtitle track on the DVD), but otherwise Hunter Prey is a satisfying small scale sci-fi success, provided you aren’t expecting OTT spectacle on a galactic budget.

In a CR@B Shell: A bold and ambitious future-vision which makes the most of a small cast and even smaller budget. Hunter Prey is a remarkable debut which suggests grander things are to come for Sandy Collora.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


12A – 107mins – 2009
Screenplay by: Shauna Cross
Based on her debut novel
Derby Girl (2007)
Directed by: Drew Barrymore
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Landon Pigg, Eve


Exasperated by the humdrum banality of backwater life in Bodeen, Texas, 17 year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) dream of escaping to more exciting climes. But whereas Pash has the prospect of attending an Ivy League school to look forward to, Bliss still has to find the flint to ignite her passion.

That flint, it transpires, is Roller Derby, the adrenaline-pumping contact sport on skates where teams of women battle it out to speed around the track and overtake the opposing squad. Lying about her age, Bliss signs up for the perennially pummelled Hurl Scouts and soon becomes a poster girl for the Austin outfit.

But what will her straight-laced, pageant-obsessed mother (Marcia Gay Harden) make of this dangerous and rebellious new hobby, and how long will Bliss be able to keep her real age from her amiable but underperforming teammates, especially with bitchy rival Iron Mavon (Juliette Lewis) on to her deception?

Yeah, I know, on paper Shauna Cross’s screen adaptation of her own novel sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? A team of losers welcome in a new team member who transforms the underdogs into super pups, only for personal issues to throw a spanner in the works and leave the star player out of action for the upcoming Championship final, yada, yada, yada, yawn.
But – and this is a mammoth, obese but – trust me when I say Whip It truly bursts to life on screen: the characterisation is charismatic, the dialogue is witty and razor sharp (“You guys came in second out of two teams! Yeah, let’s celebrate mediocrity!!”) and every scene is crackling with an inspirational vibe which hides any hint of mawkishness under a crash helmet, knee pads and an abundance of attitude.

Maggie Mayhew, Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks, Jabba the Slut, Eva Destruction, Smashley Simpson – these roller derby chicks are tough, but they’ve also got a quirky sense of humour and it’s hard not to crack a smile at their vibrant, culture-riffing pseudonyms and garishly OTT uniforms. It is no wonder that Bliss found this alternative world to be a thrilling release from her clueless father (Daniel Home Alone Stern) and pushy mother, and her coming of age in and out of skates is a joy to watch.

You wouldn’t be laughed off the circuit for thinking Drew Barrymore’s surprisingly proficient directorial debut was set during the 1980’s. From the frankly primeval beauty pageants Bliss is forced into entering, to the Styker t-shirt she wears while dating local rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg), the pinball machine they play in the local arcade and the vinyl record collections they peruse, Whip It is filled with many a charming and quaint eccentricity which underlies Bodeen’s evolution vacuum.

And yet this is concurrently such a thoroughly modern roller-motion picture, channelling such timeless themes as empowerment, independence and fighting for what you believe in with such a funky sense of unconventional cool that it is hard not to admire Bliss’s giant V-sign to tradition.

The confident-yet-cute Ellen Page once again scores with a winning performance as the girl who will become Babe Ruthless, but the entire ensemble cast are likewise superb at conveying their characters with such genuine conviction that they really jump out of the screen. Watching Bliss and Pash mockingly dance along to the radio while changing the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is a personal highlight, if only because it is the kind of nutty, carefree thing I can remember doing at that age. And this morning… *cough*

In a CR@B Shell: Shauna’s snappy script and a splendid squad promote Whip It from sports movie mediocrity to genre frontrunner. A sweet, colourful and accomplished directorial debut from Drew, I challenge you not to fall in love with this charming and spirited indie flick.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Bubble-jet Effect

15 – 101mins – 2010
Story by: Josh Heald
Screenplay by: Josh Heald, Sean Anders, John Morris
Directed by: Steve Pink
Starring: John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, Lyndsy Fonseca, Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase, Lizzy Caplan, Sebastian Stan, Charlie McDermott


In an extreme example of lazy journalism, it seems that every US comedy with a lead cast of middle-aged men is evermore destined to be compared to commercial goldmine The Hangover. But am I the only person who wasn't overly enamoured with last year's less black, more slapstick take on Very Bad Things, and feel “2010's answer to The Hangover” (as the Hot Tub cover quote boasts) flies waaaaay over the bar set by Todd Phillip's Road Trip for the over 30's?

A far more appropriate comparison – take note, Glamour “critics” – would be to call Hot Tub Time Machine the US answer to the brilliantly underrated Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, minus the cosy quality of the intimate pub backdrop and chummy dynamic of the nerdy leads. What d'ya mean that's too wordy for a cover quote?!

But whereas the UK's feature-length sitcom flushed its characters into a baron and apocalyptic future via a lavatory portal, Hot Tub spins in the opposite direction, beginning with its protagonists at an all time low, despairing at their miserable adult lives, before an evening in the titular outdoor jacuzzi hurtles them back to their 80's heyday at a holiday ski lodge brimming with jheri curls, leg warmers and icons of old (Crispin Glover! Chevy Chase!! ALF!!!).

Eshewing a total geek-out, Hot Tub is fully loaded with crude humour (“It looks like Gary Coleman's forearm!”) and gross-out moments (“You drive a BMW, right?”), while the foul language gauge is (unnecessarily) cranked up to code blue throughout. This is, after all, a post-American Pie product, albeit with an 80's flava.

Yet it's hard to be insulted by the laddish banter thrown about by the middle-aged trio of Cusack, Robinson, Corddry and young tag along Clark Kick Ass Duke as Hot Tub's depressed gents come to terms with being wild teenagers all over again (or in Duke's case, not even born) and attempt to retread the exact same steps they took two decades previous – with hilariously disastrous results.

The zealous cast are superb, their every desperate action exuding charm as they attempt to appease the timeline and not erase themselves from existence. “The butterfly effect?” Corddry's loud-mouth Lou questions, “I LOVE that movie!” Any viewers initially deterred by the high concept time travel shennanigans will be won over by the human plight at the film's core, and the fact that only Duke's basement-dwelling role-player Jacob has any real grasp of the technicalities (“I write Stargate SG-1 fan fiction!”).

From Lou's fascination with anticipating when the hapless bellboy (Glover) will lose his arm, to Robinson screaming down the phone to his nine year old future-wife about the evils of adultery, even the most clichéd and farcical genre tropes become laugh-out-loud running jokes which won't confound even the most resolute sci-fi hater.

The writers know Hot Tub Time Machine is by no means the first comedy to genre hop; it's out-there, sure, but they aren't reinventing the wheel here. Yet they are having a blast sending up the classics (Back To The Future!) and wallowing in retro heaven while the amiable characters rediscover friendship, fun and how to take a fork in the eye for a second time. And that's what comedy is all about, right?

Finally – and this deserves a paragraph all of its own – Craig Robinson's singer-turned-under-the-thumb-husband Nick getting up on a stage at Winterfest '86 and regaining his youthful groove by giving the awestruck audience a twenty year preview of The Black Eyed Peas' “Let's Get It Started” is a stand out scene I simply cannot watch without cracking an almighty grin. Don't believe me? Do a search for the clip on Lougle.

In a CR@B Shell: Anyone dissuaded by the bonkers expository title really should learn to jump in and relax, as Hot Tub Time Machine is an endearing tale of lost friendship salvaged by time (travel), humorously dressed up in a laugh-out-loud sci-fi concept and neon leg warmers.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Empire Strides Back

15 – 93mins – 2010
Written by: Neil Marshall
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Ulrich Thomsen, Noel Clarke, David Morrissey, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Ryan Atkinson


Following the stellar double whammy of Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005) – not to mention a near messianic level of admiration from Total Film magazine – it is a surprise to me that writer and director Neil Marshall’s subsequent releases (2008’s Doomsday and this year's Centurion) have been released to little fanfare. Indeed, Centurion’s cinema release must have been so limited it totally passed me by!

Sticking with his trusted blueprint of pitting an ever-diminishing band of heroes against a much larger and seemingly unconquerable enemy, Marshall here swaps the supernatural for the quasi-historical – although we’re still very much in his comfort zone of Scotland (Marshall’s beloved homeland and locale for all his previous films), even if it is known as Caledonia back in 117 AD.

Turning the tables on our expectations and favouring the invaders of the sword-slashing, armour-donning Roman Empire over the native, spear-throwing, warpaint-wearing Celtic Picts, Marshall mines the ambiguous legend of the ill-fated Ninth Legion (which was the film’s working title) for gritty, battle-heavy action/thriller gold.

According to historians (and lazy researcher’s best friend, Wikipedia), the 4,000 strong Roman legion marched into Scotland and just disappeared, never to be heard from again... Marshall creatively surmises that the military failure was wiped from the history books to keep the Roman governor of Britannia's record untainted, after a Pict sect lead by a mute, vengance-fuelled warrior (Olga Quantum of Solace Kurylenko) slayed the invading army for murdering their chief's (Ulrich The World Is Not Enough Thomsen) young son (Ryan Atkinson). Lovely chaps.

Yet here we are, siding with the pillaging Roman's, whose motley crew of seven Everyman survivors – lead by centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Hunger Fassbender) – first march north to rescue their captured commander (Dominic 300 West) from the Pict settlement, then head south (via the west, naturally: tactics, people!) to the supposed safety of their fortified garrison. It's a simple plot unburdened by too much character detail.

What Centurion does offer a lot of, however, is walking. Even when the two forces aren't walking towards one another, they're chasing after one another, weapons in hand and revenge in their eyes. And when the chase is up, they're fighting one another. Relentlessly. You see, Centurion also offers a grandiose amount of fighting, and Marshall doesn't skimp on the more spectacularly savage money shots. Many a head is separated from body, eye gouged out and limb hacked off – and we see every bloody strike and slash.

Away from the blistering action, the film’s washed out blue-grey palette, coupled with its misty woodland-shrouded landscapes and swooping aerial views of the Scottish Highlands, lend Centurion an epic and atmospheric quality similar to the obviously comparable Gladiator (2000). Although Neil Marshall's brisk and slimline 93 minute sprint will not remain as iconic as Ridley Scott's drawn out marathon, Centurion does deliver exactly what you would expect from a genre piece carrying the tagline "Fight or Die".

CR@B Verdict: Grisly, grimy and with gallons of gore, Centurion may not be perfect but what it lacks in brains it more than makes up for in brawn: Neil Marshall’s latest is a straight-up slice of hardcore popcorn entertainment.

Sly and the Family Stocky

15 – 103mins – 2010
Story by: David Callaham
Screenplay by: David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Gisele Itié, David Zayas, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Charisma Carpenter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis

In a balls-out, idol-starring, action beat ‘em up extravaganza up like The Expendables, does anybody really give two hoots about the plot? You know, the talky bits in-between the blood letting, bone crushing, car chasing and cameo spotting. No? Thought not. Okay, well I’ll make this as quick as I can then:

The film is named after a team of tough guy mercenaries, lead by Barney Ross (Stallone), who all have skills in different types of combat: martial arts (Li), blades (Statham), weapons (Crews), bombs (Couture) and sniper rifles (Lundgren). The Expendables are hired by the enigmatic “ Mr Church ” (Willis) to overthrow a dictator (Zayas) on the fictional Mexican island of Vilena .

Much fighting, exploding and rescuing ensues as the team realise “Mr Church” isn’t who they believed him to be, and Vilena is actually under the control of ex-CIA agent James Munroe (Roberts), who has recruited Lundgren’s aggrieved ex-Expendable, Jensen, to work alongside his henchmen Paine (Austin) and The Brit (Daniels) and take the dictator’s daughter (Itié) hostage.

If that lost you then you need to go back to school – but fear not: you’ll still be cheering at the frantic action, sniggering at the team’s torrent of spiky banter (“It’s not easy being green,” “He wants to be President,” “That’s a statement,” “Warning shot!”) and dribbling with sadistic glee as digital blood splatters the walls, the body count rises exponentially and planes destroy harbours in floods of flames. Forget narrative logic, this is one visceral and testosterone pumped thrill ride – and that’s what people came for, right? That, and Schwarzenegger’s sixty scene-stealing seconds.

In a film not exactly celebrated for its acting talent (muscles and star power are definitely the bigger draw), comeback king Mickey Rourke – under an ultraviolet lamp with the camera zoomed in close to his quivering lips and tear-drenched eyes – delivers an astonishingly heart wrenching monologue as former teammate Tool, about turning his back on a woman’s suicide in Bosnia. The scene is unlike anything else in The Expendables, and it adds a glimmer of substance to the shallow OTT spectacle.

Not that there’s anything wrong with shallow OTT spectacle; the film truly explodes to life the minute a punch is thrown, a shabbily CGI-ed fire is ignited or a bullet is shot, but it is in the quieter moments (Rourke’s monologue aside) that the film looses its edge and you just wait for it all to kick off again.

Regrettably, even with their alleged “specialities” the characters are all very much of a muchness and if they weren’t all über famous action stars, you’d have trouble telling muscle from muscle. You may even say they're all *whisper it* expendable...

CR@B Verdict: Booms, bangs, blades, bullets, brawls, banter, blood, baaaaad CGI, a bevy of bad-ass action stars and a definite whiff of brie – The Expendables is the ultimate “B” movie. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but if you go in expecting nothing more accomplished, you won’t be disappointed.