Thursday, 30 December 2010

'Tis the Season to be Busy

So here is a smattering of slimline assessments – all the goodness of a regular CR@Blog, with half the inane prattling (not scientifically proven).

Film Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)
PG – 92mins – 2009

Robert Polar Express Zemeckis’s visually consummate CGI retelling of Charles Dicken’s Victorian ghost story sees rubber-mouthed Jim Carrey taking on a multitude of assorted vocal roles, including the misery Ebenezer Scrooge, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

Some of the landscape rendering is so masterful you’ll wonder whether you’re not looking at a photograph, while Colin Firth’s festive Fred and Bob Hoskin’s portly Mr. Fezziwig look so much like Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins that they may as well have done away with the pixels altogether.

Ultimately, other than some boastful ethereal effects – this was shown in 3D cinemas, after all – and a nightmarish shrink n’ chase scene with a demonic horse and cart, this umpteenth cinematic adaptation offers us nothing we haven’t seen copious times before, no doubt at a tenth of the budget of this overblown Disney retread. If that makes me a Scrooge then I say “bah, humbug!”

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

Film Review: THE DARK HALF
18 –122 mins – 1993

Creepshow collaborators and genre legends George A. Romero and Stephen King joined forces once again in the early ‘90s, with the Granddaddy of the Living Dead bringing the literary spinechiller’s pseudonym-exorcising 1989 novel to the big screen.

King waved goodbye to his own darker half “Richard Bachman” shortly before writing this terrifying tale of a pen-name-made-flesh, with Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (no, me neither) stepping into the dual role of Thad Beaumont/“George Stark”.

This is not a murder mystery, since the supernatural nature of Stark’s personification is never in doubt, so when Thad is accused of slaughtering those who were in on his pseudonym’s “death” we never once share the police’s suspicions.

Nevertheless, this is a polished and visceral horror (twin tumour!!) with a superbly ambitious and disturbingly twisted end for the evil Stark more than making up for any plot holes (like why prime suspect Thad was free to go about his day to day life during the investigation, besides the fact it would otherwise have been a very short film).

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

12A – 99mins – 2007

Everyone always tells you to read the book before you see the film; well here is an instance where I did just that and thoroughly regretted it. Character names aside, there aren’t many details from Susan Cooper’s 1974 fantasy adventure novel that the filmmakers didn’t alter.

The plot – involving teen “Old One” Will Stanton’s (Alexander Ludwig) search for six signs to stop the Dark from, you’ve guessed it, rising – remains broadly akin to its source, at least tonally, but faithful it sure ain’t: Ages, nationalities and character traits are needlessly altered, key plot points butchered, inexplicably moved or dropped in favour of weaker new additions, etcetera.

Viewed on its own accord, I’m sure this magical fantasy romp would more than satisfy young fans of the Harry Potter, Eragon, Narnia, Inkheart, Lemony Snickett and Golden Compass ilk, but when seen in light of the visionary novel, the only thing it leaves you seeking is an aspirin! The Dark is Rising purists beware.

CR@B Rating: aaaaa

From Swamp Thing to Swamp King?

U – 93mins – 2007
Written by: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Chris Miller, Aron Warner
Characters inspired by the novel by: William Stieg
Directed by: Chris Miller and Raman Hui
Starring the vocal talents of: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphey, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Everett, Justin Timberlake, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Eric Idle


I was in the minority who genuinely favoured 2004’s Shrek 2 to DreamWorks’s original fantasy-flavoured romp, yet I was in absolutely no rush to see this largely reviled threequel, for the very reason that it was largely reviled. In fact, franchise closer Shrek Forever After is already out on DVD before I belatedly caught up with this 2007 entry (recorded from BBC1 on Christmas Day). At this rate, expect the fourth film’s review circa Christmas 2013!!

Series director Andrew Adamson had already departed for Narnia prior to this entry, but otherwise all of your favourite fairy tale folk from Far, Far Away are present again. Unsurprisingly, most of them are totally superfluous and only on hand to provide brand familiarity, bolster toy sales and volunteer the occasional witticism. Nevertheless, they are joined by a veritable deluge of new-but-familiar mythological friends (Arthur “Artie” Pendragon, Merlin, Snow White, Rapunzel).

As rightful heir to the kingdom, the once-reviled-but-slowly-domesticated ogre Shrek (Mike Myers), accompanied by ever-loyal sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphey) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), sets out to bring weedy student Artie (Justin Timberlake) back from High School to claim the throne after Frog King Harold (John Cleese), umm, croaks it.

While this cross country undertaking to (and then from) Worcestershire Academy provides the narrative’s driving force, there is rebellion afoot back home in Far Far Away, with vainglorious but down-on-his-luck Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) gathering together a host of e-e-evil pantomime villains (Ugly Stepsisters, Captain Hook, Cyclops) to seize the dead king’s crown in Shrek’s absence.

While not the complete disaster I was predicting, Shrek the Third does lack the “ogre the top” (ahem) sheen which breathed life into its predecessors – at times it feels more like a lesser, direct to DVD cash-in than a blockbuster of equal worth. The story felt flat and lacking inspiration, while the demographic-straddling humour felt less fresh and more reliant upon the audience’s recognition of past giggles (Puss’s kitten eyes, Donkey and Dragon’s “Dronkey” brood).

That being said, there are a few joyfully humorous gags (I am loathe to admit that I laughed out loud at Gingerbread Man shreking himself), and your heart must be made of dragon hide to not find the bumbling and banter-packed misadventures of the three spirited sidekicks charming, even if this isn’t their greatest adventure.

In a CR@B Shell: Nestled somewhere between Shrek the Turd and Shrek-tacular; the oddball characters we have come to know and love just about keep this saga-stretching second sequel afloat, even if it does feel like a lazier effort than its boundary-pushing predecessors.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

A Year of CR@Blogging

Twelve months after opening the CR@B Shack for business
I'm feeling creative and festive and a tiny bit reflective,
So between Christmas Day and my site's first jubilee
I present this gift to you in the form of poetry...

I may not always publish or post an awful lot
For life sometimes gets in the way of my blog,
But I’m proud of my writing and I enjoy it too,
And I’m ever so grateful to followers like you,
Taking time to digest my “expert” opinion,
Occasionally leaving a comment of (dis)agreement,
You let me know my voice is heard loud and clear
And I look forward to reviewing bounteous more this next year.

Snappy Holidays to all,
I trust you're having a good one,
Don't forget to keep checking back to

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Taming His Night Fury

PG – 94mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Based on the novel by: Cressilda Cowell
Directed by: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Starring the voice talents of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T. J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, David Tennant


Despite being initially discouraged by this fantasy adaptation’s overly stylised Lilo and Stitch-meets-Pok√©mon-esque animation style, a torrent of glowing reviews upon its theatrical roll-out in March roused my interest. Indeed, once you get past the cartoony Vikings and cutesy winged creatures, How to Train Your Dragon is a bright and witty coming-of-age tail which also packs a hefty dramatic punch.

The graphics are first rate, with the aerial shots of protagonist Hiccup (Baruchel) riding his overgrown “pet” Toothless rendered particularly beautifully. The attention to detail - wood grain, barnacles on the longboat’s underbelly, misty mountain ranges and the like - is stunning, even if the character designs are larger than life. But it is the characterisation of these wide-eyed, overgrown Norse warriors and their fire breathing foes which provides this film its flair.

Much to his chieftain father’s (Butler) chagrin, young Hiccup isn’t like all the other brutish dragon slayers in the village of Berk: he’s a designer – and a pacifist. So while his contemporaries – the delightfully named Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Snoutlout (Hill) and twins Ruffnut (Miller) and Tuffnut (Wiig) – and the girl of his dreams, Astrid (Ferrera), are desperate to start combat training to bring down the winged scourge of their village, Hiccup is secretly befriending a “deadly” Night Fury in the forest.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice star Baruchel has a very distinctive vocal talent which suits weedy-but-endearing Hiccup well, while Butler lends fearless leader Stoick the requisite gravitas; father and son couldn’t be more different, and Stoick’s blatant disappointment in his quirky offspring provides much of the film’s poignancy, as Hiccup’s reverence for Toothless proves far more valuable than the Viking’s traditional “kill first, ask questions never” technique – but will they ever listen to the tribe pariah?

Were I to identify a couple of the film’s weaker elements, then Hiccup’s fellow trainees are effectively worthless, with any attempts at individual identities being more down to their recognisable voices than their minimal impact on the narrative, while love interest Astrid (a character not present in Cressilda Cowell’s source novel) is treated somewhat feebly, shifting from bantering and battling ladette to sweet love-stuck companion the minute Hiccup reveals his Night Fury (it's not as dodgy as it sounds…).

However, a game-changing revelation late in the second act sets up a dramatic and high-octane finale as Hiccup’s father recklessly sets out to undo the “shame” his wayward son has brought upon Berk, with an (un)expected hero swooping in to save the day. Naturally for a family film, many badly informed beliefs are turned around before the credits roll, but it is the verve with which How to Train Your Dragon delivers these life lessons that makes it stand out from the pixelated crop.

In a CR@B Shell: Humorous, adventurous and distinctive, How to Train Your Dragon flies high above the raft of analogous CGI ‘toons due to relatable central characters battling universal themes alongside terrifically flamboyant giant mythical reptiles.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Snow More Winter

PG – 137mins – 2005
Screenplay by: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Based on the novel by: C. S. Lewis
Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson, James McAvoy, Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Michael Madsen, Patrick Kake, Shane Rangi, James Cosmo, Jim Broadbent


I fear my initial reaction to this epic fantasy adaptation – one I made upon leaving the cinema in December 2005, and stubbornly held until last night – was somewhat harsh. I far too quickly dismissed Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as nothing more proficient than the late eighties BBC mini-series, albeit with superior CGI. But viewing the first film in the saga for a second time – and in the perspective of the successive entries in the series (reviewed HERE and HERE) – made my appreciation blossom. Either that or I’m getting soft in my old age…

True, the four young actors taking on the Pevensie children – for the first time, it must be noted, they do improve as the films progress – are at times frankly appalling actors (particular the lads Moseley and Keynes whose voices lack any kind of expressive tone or depth), but with so much magic and wonderment flurrying around them any faults are often blanketed over like the snow from Narnia’s eternal winter.

As I revisited Mr Tumnus’s (McAvoy) home for tea, crumpets and sardines, and trekked across frozen lakes with Mr and Mrs Beaver (voiced by Winstone and French respectively) on the way to meeting the mighty Aslan (Neeson) and joining his army to combat the White Witch, Jadis (Swinton), what struck me most about Lewis’s children’s fable is how bleak and frightening it all is: Narnia under the White Witch’s rule is not a pleasant place, with foxes being mauled by wolves, fauns being turned to stone and children being chained up and slapped for asking questions.

Indeed, even as the snow thaws and the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve (that’s human children, FYI) bring hope back to the whitewashed landscape, Aslan’s blatantly allegorical sacrifice upon the Pagan-esque Stone Table in place of traitorous Edmund (Keynes) is hardly family viewing, with all manner of grotesque demonic creatures (minotaurs, dwarves, giant bats, etcetera) all baying for the lion’s blood under firelight.

Of course it’s hardly much of a spoiler for me to reveal that good eventually conquers evil with Aslan making a magnificent return to defeat Jadis once and for all (though Swinton still manages to wangle appearances in both follow-ups to date), but not before Peter (Moseley) has done his fair share of sword fighting and Edmund has been stabbed. Thank heavens for little Lucy’s (Henley) gift from Father Christmas (Cosmo): a healing potion which makes all battle scars vanish – all except the ones imprinted on the adolescent audience’s brains, that is.

So, allegorical meaning or not, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe doesn’t escape representing some truly adult horrors, even if they do all happen in the back of a magical closet and feature a menagerie of talking critters. This may sound like a negative observation, but trust me it is not: I say bravo to Adamson and his crew for not bowdlerizing some of the more intimidating imagery and granting Narnia a truly visionary scope. I guess we’ve all got to grow up some time; we may as well do it in the comfort of a good film.

In a CR@B Shell: A multifaceted, uncompromising and surprisingly re-watchable treat for the whole family. What better time to indulge upon a second peek inside the wardrobe then at Christmas when we wish we had as much snow as Narnia. Turkish delight, anyone?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Splice Girl

15 – 100mins – 2010
Story by: Vincenzo Natali,
Written by: Vincenzo Natali and Doug Taylor
Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, David Hewlett, Simona Maicanescu, Abigail Chu

Faultlessly splicing* together the lowbrow thrills of a blood-soaked horror with the limitless possibilities of the science fiction genre, Vicenzo Cube Natali’s latest piece of visually-resplendent yet cerebrally-satisfying entertainment is a tense, shocking and fascinating creation the like of which David Cronenberg would undoubtedly be proud (if anyone has asked him, or, for that matter, if he’s even seen it).

King Kong’s Brody and Dawn of the Dead’s Polley head up the minimalist cast as Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, partners both in their field of genetic engineering and at home. When their corporate firm decides to pull the plug on their medicinal gene-splicing research in favour of a more profitable and less controversial direction, Clive and Elsa secretly take their work one step further and implement human DNA into their next animal hybrid… “Dren”.

As their scientific breakthrough rapidly grows and develops, so too does the swiftly evolving plot. With every scientific step Clive and Elsa conquer, a raft of ethical and moral dilemmas presents themselves: Is their research legal? Are they working out of scientific curiosity or for selfish personal gain? Could they ever reveal Dren to the world? Can they take a life which they created? Is Dren a lab rat, a pet, a child or an equal?

Indie director Natali implements these moral quandaries so fluidly into the pacey and progressive script that you never feel like you are being lectured at, and any inherent social commentary on the danger of crossing the line in our genetically and technologically inquisitive future never overshadows the horrifying, tense and unconventional action (yep, in both senses of the word). Also let me just clarify that, yes, curiosity does indeed kill the cat…

Brody and Polley’s performances are perfectly understated (and, thus, all the more convincing) without lacking the emotional brevity that a film as taxing and affecting as Splice requires, but Delphine Chaneac undeniably steals the show as the not-quite-human anthropomorphic experiment. She brings to the voiceless role a kind and trusting ignorance, whilst never betraying Dren’s alien characteristics (though the wings and tail-stinger certainly help!!).

Even in the downbeat epilogue yet another innovative twist is delivered which opens up yet more room for ethical debate (and the opportunity for a sequel). You may shriek, you may cringe, you may laugh it off as ludicrously far-fetched, but Vincenzo Natali guarantees that Splice will linger in your noggin long after the credits have rolled. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sign of an all round damn good film.

In a CR@B Shell: A fascinatingly original, cerebrally compelling, visually entertaining and psychologically transfixing creature; Splice achieves so much on such a strict budget, without ever labouring its point or compromising its aim: a modern genre classic.
* Wow, I got that one in early!!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

On Stronger Tides

PG – 105mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni
Based on the novel by: C. S. Lewis
Directed by: Michael Apted
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg, Gary Sweet, Laura Brent, Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton


Dragons, sea serpents, supernatural mists, invisible mansions, ancient spell books, mermaids, tempests, enchanted jewels – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader really is a phenomenal treasure chest of fascinating fantastical tropes; bright and fun enough for little 'uns to gawp at, but with enough substance to keep mum and dad emotionally engaged too.

This third visit to the magical realm of Narnia sees the youngest two Pevensie children taking to the high seas aboard the eponymous royal vessel with brattish cousin Eustace Scrubb (Poulter) reluctantly in tow. Like the choppy Silver Sea on which the ship travels toward the Eastern Islands in search of seven lost lords, there’s never a dull moment in this spirited and pacey threequel.

With Michael The World Is Not Enough Apted taking over directorial duty from series kick-starter Andrew Shrek Adamson (who stays on as producer) and a wisely tighter run-time, it seems like doubtful former co-financiers Disney jumped ship on this revitalised saga one instalment too soon: the magic has returned to Narnia with full force.

I will admit that I too was sceptical after 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe offered nothing that the BBC adaptation hadn’t delivered nearly two decades previous, and 2008's Prince Caspian (reviewed HERE) was a bloated and battle-heavy curiosity which favoured excess over heart, but C. S. Lewis’s allegorical series is back on track with this far stronger pirate-flavoured escapade.

Most impressively, Dawn Treader perfectly implements character growth into the finely balanced mix of humour and wonder which enthralls without over-indulging: young Lucy (Henley) is conscious that she isn’t as pretty as older sister Susan (Popplewell), brother Edmund (Keynes) is sick of constantly playing second fiddle, while comic juggernaut Eustace’s reluctance to believe in this illogical wonderland manifests itself in insolence.

With a little help from the-now-King Caspian (Barnes, Spanish inflection now absent) and his multifarious crew, a wish-fulfilling spell, a magic lake, a transformative gold bracelet – and not forgetting wisecracking and courageous mouse Reepicheep (Pegg, replacing Izzard) – the trio learn a myriad of life lessons whilst also having the time of their lives locating the Narnian lord's seven lost swords to lay upon Aslan's (Neeson) table and defeating the haunting green mist which lures them to evil with nightmarish visions. It’s all go!

Whether it’s too late to save this (comparatively) underperforming franchise from a premature termination remains to be seen, but I certainly have faith that there are great adventures to be chronicled from Narnia’s plentiful shores – particularly given how skilfully they have tailored this rather conservative source novel into a pacey and action-packed extravaganza. And at the end of the day isn’t faith what these stories are all about anyway…?

In a CR@B Shell: A spirited and spectacular family friendly fantasy which sailed far beyond my expectations: Voyage is a bright and promising new dawn for Narnia; Lewis would be proud.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Faith, Hamlet and Shtick

PG – 148mins – 2008
Screenplay by: Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Based on the novel by: C. S. Lewis
Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Eddie Izzard, Sergio Castellitto, Peter Dinklage, Ken Stott, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton

Being granted the exclusive opportunity to see an advanced screening of Voyage of the Dawn Treader 24hours prior to its release this week (a minor perk of owning a Cineworld Unlimited Card; review to follow), I thought it only right that I should see the threequel in context by finally catching up with the second chronicle in the recently rekindled Narnia saga.

It has been five years since I was underwhelmed by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the cinema, but that has such an enduring story that – thanks to the BBC adaptation which I rewatched repeatedly as a child – it will stay with me forever. In contrast, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Prince Caspian, having ventured no further into either the novel series or BBC broadcasts, except that it took nowhere near enough money at the box office for Disney to desire to continue co-financing the remaining C. S. Lewis stories.

If the trivia section of IMDb is to believed, prior to the filming of this big budget follow up, there were worries from director Andrew Adamson and his co-writing cohorts Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that the story of Prince Caspian was too talky and lacking in adventurous splendour when compared to Aslan’s (Neeson) Bible-riffing sacrifice and the epic battle against the White Witch (Swinton) in the well-known series opener.

Thus, the resultant feature film may differ vastly from its slimline prose origins, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to blockbuster battle scenes, of which there are scores. Indeed, after a slow burn first half which sees the Pevensie siblings transported back to Narnia’s shore, Prince Caspian mounts towards a crescendo of titanic clashes for its final hour, with all manner of creatures showing their worth with a weapon as the submissive Narnian’s join forces with the eponymous Prince (Barnes) to reclaim their land from the invading Telmarine army.

There are definite shades of Shakespeare in the story of a young prince usurped by a jealous uncle who murdered the king to claim the throne (coughHamletcough). Furthermore, I’m not entirely sure why the Telmar’s are all Hispanic (even Brit Barnes adopts a Spanish accent which has apparently been dropped for film three), given that the fact they are humanoid already disassociates them adequately from Narnia’s animal populace, who have been thought extinct in the 1300 years since the royal Pevensie brood returned to war-time London through the wardrobe.
The immense passage of time is perhaps one reason why this return to Aslan’s domain feels entirely disparate to the preceding visit, despite the same cast and crew’s participation (even Tilda Swinton turns up for an ice-entombed cameo). Personally, I always favoured the snow-steeped eternal winter scenes in The Lion..., but the supernatural gloss of the ethereal white landscape all disappeared when the White Witch was defeated and summer returned to New Zealan- I mean, Middle Eart- NARNIA. Sorry, bad hobbi- HABIT!!

Aslan’s role is also far reduced in this sophomore entry, with the God-like lion nothing more than a fabled memory for the faithful to cling onto. Oh yes, Lewis’s “subtle” allegory of faith hasn’t been scarified in this twenty first century adap a la The Golden Compass, even in the midst of copious castle sieges and sword fights. But when you’ve got nearly two and a half hours to play with, you can squeeze a lot in, with numerous glances even alluding to a ludicrous underlying romance between elder sister Susan (Popplewell) and the Telmarine Prince!!

Sure, Mr. Tumnus and the Beaver’s may all have long since departed Narnia’s mortal plain, but the screen is now clear for a raft of new rabbiting mammals to provide some comic relief for the kiddies; in particular voice-of-reason Trufflehunter (Stott) the badger, and sword-wielding mouse Reepicheep (Izzard) whose persistently squeaky quips fire down many a derogatory comment aimed at his diminutive form. The dwarfs (one of which, naturally, is played by modest-for-hire Warwick Davis), meanwhile, still don’t exactly welcome trust, despite no longer being the White Witch’s minions…

I commend Adamson et al for their bravery and originality in expanding a treasured tome so indiscreetly. For this reason, Prince Caspian was always going to have its (purist) detractors. I was also pleasantly surprised by how little they pandered cringingly to their youngest demographic like the earliest Harry Potter films did – the Telmarine’s political backstabbing and warmongering, for instance, is likely to fly straight over the core audience's heads, but it is essential to setting up the civil war and Aslan’s noble return.

Yet for all the glossy effects, magical spectacle and humanizing themes there is still something about this updated series which doesn’t quite connect with me. Perhaps further depth to the characters and a more affectionate approach to the animal creations would invite viewers to bond more sincerely with the personal issues which affect the inhabitants of this world, instead of the overly cluttered approach which weighs down Caspian’s lengthy runtime and barely grants half of the cast more than a (snappy) line of dialogue.

In a CR@B Shell: Efficiently entertaining for its duration, but Prince Caspian’s appeal is as fleeting and shallow as the CGI effects which dominate Narnia’s bustling landscape. By no means an epic fail, but the warmth must be resurrected to stop The Dawn Treader from sinking.