Thursday, 28 April 2011

The God, the Bard and the Funny

Cine Review: THOR
12A – 114mins – 2011
Story by: J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich
Screenplay by: Ashley Edward Millar, Zack Stentz and Don Payne
Based on the Marvel Comics character created by: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Jaimie Alexander, Joshua Dallas, Rene Russo

Proud and overconfident warrior Thor (Hemsworth; well cast), the mighty God of Thunder, is stripped of his supernatural powers and his iconic battle hammer Mjolnir and banished to earth by his incensed father, Odin (Hopkins), ruler of Asgard, after his war-mongering arrogance breaks the fragile peace treaty between the Asgardian’s and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim.

Such is the state of play at the start of this fourth Marvel Comics superhero movie from the collective Universe which has so far brought us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 (reviewed HERE), and will continue in Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers and a third Iron Man film over the next few years.

British director Kenneth Branagh – a man most noted for his Shakespearian adaptations – may seem like a leftfield choice for a blockbuster Hollywood superhero movie, but then Thor (a character born from ancient Norse mythology) is hardly your typical superhero, and the dialogue spouted – particularly by the deities in the scenes set in celestial city of Asgard – is reminiscent of the lofty language of the Bard’s renowned stage plays.

Visually, the shimmering Asgard locales (in particular the rainbow-coloured Bifrost Bridge ; the road to other realms) look magnificently grandiose, even in the 2D screening I saw. An oft-compared fusion of Flash Gordon’s fantastical pomposity and Lord of the Rings’s towering majesty, you would expect the earth-bound scenes set entirely within a small dustball community in the New Mexico desert to feel disappointing flat given the almighty contrast, but I actually preferred the fish-out-of-water plot as the felled Thor adjusts to a mortal existence in a territory where people bawl instead of bow at his presence.

Not since Tony Stark’s silver-tongued charm in the first Iron Man adaptation has a comic book film so successfully embraced the comic without coming across cheesy: the entire audience were laughing along as Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and her band of storm-chasing scientists (Skarsgård and a standout performance from the dryly derisive Dennings) quip sarcastically (“Mjolnir? What’s Mmnnn-mnnnn?!”) about the raving loony they accidentally hit with their car… twice.

The humour really works, and it’s almost a shame when the action shifts back to the decadently divine dimension to illustrate Thor’s nefarious brother Loki’s (the quietly slimy Hiddleston) deceitful duplicity. The shift in tone is so gigantic that you may as well be watching two entirely different films. Fortunately, Thor’s trusted compadres, Sif (Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Stevenson, Dallas, Asano) retain a playful sassiness which keeps the comedy quota at a comparative high, even when Loki sends metallic monstrosity “The Destroyer” to Earth to dispatch with his indomitable sibling and the narrative gives way to a full blown CGI sandstorm showdown.

As super-secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. – lead once more by Iron Man’s Agent Coulson (Gregg) – descends on the dessert to quarantine the unshiftable Mjolnir and confiscate Foster’s wormhole-locating research, links to this ever-expanding Marvel-verse are further enforced without isolating those hazy on the mythology. The now-obligatory post-credits teaser once more sees Samuel L. Jackson make a cameo appearance as Nick Fury, but it feels somewhat less worthwhile and more compulsory than previous tags, but at least we know this is one silver screen superhero saga in full flight.

In a CR@B Shell: A welcome injection of dry wit helps ground this potentially outlandish Norse-God-come-arrogant-superhero tale and keep the fantastical accessible. I still heavily favoured the Earth-bound scenes, but Branagh’s Thor was nevertheless a mighty good summer blockbuster – even if it is only April.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Galloping Cadavers

18 – 93mins – 1980
Written by: Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Fabrizio Jovine


I didn't rush into transcribing my initial reaction after watching this bizarre – and understandably controversial – 1980 zombie flick on Monday night; I had to mull over my thoughts, suppress my rage and attempt to make some semblance of sense of cult Italian director Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead before writing my review. Of course I failed, because I've come to the conclusion that it is impossible to make sense out of a work so unconcerned with narrative cohesion that it may as well be a medley of ever-more shocking visual scares instead of even bothering to feign interest in a logical narrative structure.

The plot, for what it's worth, concerns the attempts of two concerned couples who – for reasons all their own – must travel to the remote village of Dunwich, New England to locate the tomb of a priest (Jovine) who hanged himself and thus, by committing such a grievous sin, opened the Gates of Hell (incidentally, that is an alternate title for this many-monikered monstrosity). Can the four clued-up citizens – among them journalist Peter Bell (George) and psychic Mary Woodhouse (MacColl) – close this portal to the underworld before All Saints Day, or will the undead rise to take over the earth?

Despite it's derivative title, please do not confuse this glory-stealing shambles – the first in a trilogy, no less – as a part of George A. Romero's infinitely superior "Living Dead" series. Whereas Romero used his zombies as a cleverly striking metaphor for his harsh social commentary, Fulci doesn't seem to have any clear idea of what the hell he is doing, instead throwing a plethora of grotesque set-pieces at the camera in the hope that everyone is too busy freaking out at the gore to notice nothing makes a jot of sense! Well, I did.

Okay, to be fair, as the film progresses and the two couples converge and formulate something vaguely resembling a plan, the disjointedly fragmented shards of narrative do start to fuse together somewhat, but by this point in the film I had lost all hope of logic and was simply watching in a gore-thirsty braindead state akin to the reanimated dead, who, I may have forgotten to mention, seem able to beam themselves in and out of thin air for no reason whatsoever – and you had a problem with zombies who could run?!

As well as teleporting zombies who seem more concerned with crushing skulls than eating them, Fulci also gets carried away with all manner of other illogical visualisations of the macabre: Mary dies – of fright – at a séance and awakens to find herself buried alive, a squatter with a fetish for self-inflating sex dolls (don't ask) finds the decomposing corpse of a baby then never mentions this again, a woman is forced to vomit up all her internal organs simply because she looked at the spirit of the dead priest, our protagonists find themselves in a storm of maggots, a wall is pierced with shards of glass and starts to bleed, a man's head is impaled on a rotating drill, and on more than one occasion women start to cry blood. Why? Heck knows, but Fulci does seem to have a tiresome obsession with eyes...

I'm sure gore-hounds will have a field day with this gleefully unrestrained freakshow (the censors certainly did), but as a film fan who appreciates a bit of meat on his cinematic bones, City of the Living Dead was an abominably shallow mess which has little to recommend it beyond an atmospheric score with funky guitar undertones. Much like Craven's sorrowful My Soul to Take, this cult “classic” feels like a lot of extremely visceral ideas were cobbled together and a “plot” worked around the carnage. And don't even get me started on the scream which heralds the end credits; as an attempt to insinuate the horror isn't over (despite it unquestionably being so) it fails spectacularly and just adds to the list of confusing illogicalities which plague this rotten drivel.

In a CR@B Shell: Sickeningly sadistic set-pieces and an atmospherically fog-shrouded ambience barely rescue Fulci's nonsensical Euro-trash from being an all-out disappointment, but don't go looking for any symbolic depth in this bizarre surrealist nightmare of a “narrative”. Avoid like the (un)dead.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Strange(r) Relationship

12 – 86mins – 2010
Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Wesselman-Pierce, Abby Pierce, Melody C. Roscher


Even after watching this supposedly true documentary on the dangers of online social networking, I still cannot be 100% sure whether it was real or just cleverly filmed to appear that way, in the recently popular “amateur film-maker” tradition of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and [REC]. Not that this zeitgeist-tapping Facebook expose has any supernatural elements to alleviate our curiosity, but if a story about things not being as they seem doesn't leave you paranoid, then it isn't doing its job properly.

Either way, Catfish is still a remarkably gripping viewing experience, as NYC photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schmulman is filmed by his brother and his best mate as he embarks on an internet friendship with an 8 year old art prodigy and her seemingly down-to-earth family from the quiet community of Ishiping, after the little girl sends him a painting of one of his published snaps.

As Nev starts to fall for Abby's older sister Megan, exchanging photos, mp3s and phone conversations with his virtual girlfriend over a 9 month period, the documenting trio begin to have doubts about the authenticity of this “normal” family when some of their claims are discovered to be less than honest. Determined to either dispel the doubt or uncover the deception, Nev and his “crew” make an impromptu visit to rural Michigan, when logic would tell them to stay well away.

Sad, shocking and unsettling without being inauthentic or outrageously overdone in its execution, Catfish (and there is a reason for the seemingly irrelevant title, it being taken from an interviewee's talking head during the climax) is a highly recommended warning even for those who never considered themselves naïve to PC deceit; I swiftly found myself drawn in and screaming at the screen in disbelief. And people wonder why I don't have a Facebook profile...

CR@B Rating: An opportunely consummate real-life study or skillfully dramatised fear-mongering? Regardless, Nev Schulman's Catfish will hook you in and still deliver the same cautionary sting in the tale, which couldn't be more timely in our untrustworthy society: Be careful what you click for...

Go-Go-Gadget: Son

Blu Review: ASTRO BOY
PG – 90mins – 2009
Story by: David Bowyers
Screenplay by: Timothy Hyde-Harris and David Bowyers
Based on the original 1952 Manga comic character created by: Osamu Tezuka
Directed by: David Bowyers
Starring the voice talents of: Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Matt Lucas, Newell Alexander, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy


Beneath the sleek glossy surface of this futuristic Manga-adapted CGI 'toon beats a very human heart. In point of fact, that turn of phrase works just as fittingly as a microcosmic metaphor for the dualistic bionic central character in this high-flying robot-who-thinks-he's-a-real-boy adventure. Astro Boy is a morally underscored journey of self-worth and acceptance, akin to Pinocchio retold for the Ben 10 generation who are too young for AI but too cool for Disney.

Boasting a surprisingly first rate voice cast, bright, crisp animé-tion and a welcome dose of (occasionally overtly juvenile) humour; director David Bower's heroic Hollywood-isation is vivid comic book entertainment the whole family can enjoy. But beyond the technologically exuberant spectacle (“I've got guns... in my butt!”) lies a much darker and more emotional message...

The eponymous automaton is built by a brilliant scientist (Cage) in the image of the son (Highmore) he lost, only to be rejected by the grieving father and forced to (literally) fight to find his place in a world which looks down upon robots as utensils built to serve. That is, until the citizens of Metro City need saving from a Presidential mad-man (Sutherland) determined to do anything to stay in office. Sure, it's hardly revolutionary, but Astro Boy doesn't deserve to be thrown on the scrapheap of pixelated misfires, either.

CR@B Rating: Astro Boy's innocently cherubic looks and swanky arsenal of gadgetry cloak this sombre coming-of-(space)-age tale in the sleek identity of an exhilarating sci-fi Saturday-matinee spectacular. Kudos to project spearhead David Bowyers; this 21st century reinvention is a blast on both fronts.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Fear ye the Rip-off

18 – 107mins – 2010
Written by: Wes Craven
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Max Thieriot, John Magaro, Emily Meade, Nick Lashaway, Zena Grey, Paulina Olszynski, Denzel Whitaker, Raul Esparza, Jessica Hecht, Jeremy Chu


[SPOILERS] My eagerness for satirical slasher sequel Scre4m (which I do intend to see before it leaves cinemas) was sliced down a notch after watching “master of horror” Wes Craven’s limp preceding offering. My Soul to Take is an ineffective mess of schizophrenic murderers, spiritualist hokum, loose plot-threads, weak scares, laughable chills and fruitless characters. Basically, it’s utter drivel which just screams direct-to-video B-movie. So the studio released it in box office-inflating 3D and witnessed it deservedly bomb.

Craven's first writing and directing gig since New Nightmare in 1994, My Soul to Take’s failure is even more disappointing because the premise is actually fairly novel. The film’s downfall is in its dire execution. 16 years to the day after the community of Riverton suffered terrible losses at the knife-wielding hand of the “Riverton Ripper” (Raul Esparaza), the seven children born on the night he was shot are being picked off in grizzly murders. Did the Ripper cheat death to wreck his revenge, biding his time and building his strength over the intervening years, or are supernatural forces at work?

The answer, dear readers, is the latter, despite the wounded psychopath being seen running away from the ambulance which was transporting him and his victims to the hospital, thereby keeping open the possibility of his survival. But this is just one of the many red herrings Craven throws at us, which, when you consider the film as a whole, are actually rather large plot holes. The Riverton Ripper’s soul has, in fact, been transported into one of the seven newborns who came into this world the night he left it. That’s right; the killer was that darn evil that even death couldn’t stop him. Sound familiar?

Introverted teen Adam “Bug” Hellerman (Max Thieriot), with his lack of medical records, schizophrenic impressions and morbid ability to see the recently deceased in the mirror (!), is instantly marked as suspect numero uno. Except it obviously isn’t him, because Craven tries so frickin’ hard to indebt him with all these “guilty” attributes (watch out for the family reveal halfway through) that you’re constantly anticipating a twist. And, predictably, we get one – so then what the hell was all that “dead reflections leave knifes for me in the sink” nonsense all about?!

My Soul to Take features countless genre elements which would work reasonably well on their own, but as mere fragments of this scatterbrained plot they serve no conclusive purpose other than to irritate. For instance, one of the seven teens is a Jesus freak (Zena Grey) and another is blind (Denzel Whitaker) – but their distinctive characteristics lend no purpose to the narrative! It’s as if Craven had a load of “this would be cool!” ideas, but in his excitement failed to cohesively tie them all together. And this is a veteran of modern horror cinema!

In a CR@B Shell: Over thought, over wrought claptrap from a (former) master of the genre who, most criminally of all, fails to see how preposterous his creation is and plays the entire farce entirely straight. Won’t stop you laughing out loud though.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Mr Sandman Dream Me a Death

18 – 92mins – 2010
Written by: Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer
Based on characters created by: Wes Craven
Directed by: Samuel Bayer
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton


Having posted THIS cathartic rage-dump review of his feelings towards the 21st century reimagining of the 80's most iconic dream-stalking child molester (competition was fierce in that category, let me tell you), Mr. Downie of Thom's House of Words is going to be mighty aggrieved to read that I didn't find this Michael Bay-produced offering to be wholly disagreeable. But then it has been so long since I watched Wes Craven's 1984 original horror hit that I can scarcely remember the details vividly enough to draw an accurate comparison.

I am reliably informed that the story is by-and-large identical: a group of high school kids are terrorised in their dreams by a fedora-wearing maniac with a deformed face and razor-sharp hand wear, who has the ability to not only kill them in their sub-conscious, but kill them for real. Where 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street breaks away from the source material is in its elaboration upon Freddy Kreuger's (Jackie Earle Haley) origin story. Remake scribes Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's have bulked-up his base biography and visualised flashbacks to the monster's days as a pre-school caretaker with an immoral secret.

It's dark and disturbing stuff which doesn't sit particularly well alongside the more fantastical boogieman slasher flick elements, but the attempt to further demonise the striped jumper-wearing foe (who became something of a camp quipper by the tail end of the sequels) is totally justified. I will admit to being impressed by the slick link made to folk tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin, where the multi-coloured instrumentalist kidnapped the children of the German town as vengeance for being cheated by their parents. Here, Kreuger was hunted down and burned alive for his sickening indecency by the children's rightfully outraged 'rents.

“One, two, Freddy's coming for you...”

As the line between reverie and reality becomes blurred for determined but sleep-deprived classmates Nancy (Rooney The Social Network Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner), there's no telling when Freddy will materialise, leaving them (and us) constantly on edge, a point further enhanced by the vulnerable hopelessness of being completely at his mercy in his world. How do you kill a man who is already dead? How do you stay awake long enough to formulate a plan?

Whether Elm Street needed revisiting is something of a moot point: all the most lucrative franchises are milked to death in this current cinematic climate. Whether this new Nightmare is simply a case of dressing up an already decent enough cult classic in glossy modern day clothing, I'm sadly not disposed to comment. I will, nevertheless, close by saying that I wasn't completely won-over by Jackie Earle Haley. For all the impressive prosthetics, CGI-aided wounds, and even wearing the iconic costume, he still isn't Freddy Kreuger. Robert Englund made the role his own and Haley – for all his unquestionable ability – can only be a pretender to the fedora.

In a CR@B Shell: When viewed independently of the original, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a decently sleek and creepy slasher movie with a wickedly spirited premise. Of course it isn't remotely original, but I've seen far worse, far lazier and far more futile efforts in this remake-infatuated era.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Magic, Motherf*cker

15 – 102mins – 2011
Written by: Danny McBride and Ben Best
Directed by: David Gordon Green
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Rasmus Hardiker, Natalie Portman, Toby Jones, Justin Theroux, Zooey Deschanel, Charles Dance


Good-for-nothing royal waster Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) half-arsedly agrees to accompany his valiant brother Fabious (James 127 Hours Franco) on a noble quest to rescue the latter’s bride-to-be, Belladonna (Zooey (500) Days of Summer Deschanel), from the clutches of evil sorcerer Leezar (Justin Theroux) before the two moons meet in this pseudo-medieval fantasy-come-puerile comedy from the director of the tiresome waste of film Pineapple Express.

Why then, you might enquire, did I endeavour to see Your Highness? After all, Eastbound & Down star Danny McBride is hardly renowned for his high brow sensibilities. But then I wasn’t expecting Camelot or Excalibur, yet still I held out hope. Hope that co-writer’s McBride and Ben Best’s adoration of the fantasy genre would lead to an inspired and tasteful – albeit tongue-in-cheek – romp rather than a lazy spoof from the insipid Vampire’s Suck stable. And just look at the talent involved: Portman, Franco, Jones, Deschanel, Dance – what could *possibly* go wrong?

Well the issue certainly isn’t with the cast; they’re all game for a laugh (impish Toby Jones even strips naked to reveal a worrying lack of genitalia), and the homage to retro "swords and sorcery" adventures makes for a remarkably rousing quest as the Prince’s encounter fantastical creatures, traitorous kinsmen, a village of murderous savages and a lithe female warrior (Natalie Black Swan Portman) on a mission of her own. It’s winding without being tortuous and the plot holds up well against legitimate genre staples. The problem, unsurprisingly, lies in the writer’s juvenile glee in profanity, drug use, nudity, cock jokes and excessive gore.

The juxtaposition between family friendly fantasy fare and offensive vulgarities is initially quite humorous; the word “fuck” comes up a lot, as do frequent references to boobs, weed and blow jobs. Trust me; you’ll titter against your better judgement, particularly at Thadeous’s scrawny and put-upon dogsbody, Courtney (Rasmus Lead Balloon Hardiker), who surely knows his master’s ineptitude, yet remains ever-loyal.

But when the CGI is as first rate, the cast as glitzy, the score as epic, the locales as majestic and the sorcery as mind-blowing as on display in Your Highness, you soon start to question the awkwardness of this disjointed union: when it is eluded that a Jim Henson-alike puppet molested Fabious as a child, you’ll feel increasingly uneasy and long for the heroically innocent mythological escapades of yesteryear where the damsel in distress isn’t under threat of being raped and impregnated with a dragon's seed.

In a CR@B Shell: By toning back the crudeness, Your Highness *could* actually have been a remarkably entertaining retro feel-good romp, but McBride is more interested in sleazy immaturity, leading to a schizophrenic film which looks grand but acts goofy and demonstrates not an iota of moderation.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Hunter Slay

18 – 82mins – 2010
Written by: Tim Tori
Directed by: Patrik Syversen
Starring: Courtney Hope, Saxon Trainor, Bruce Payne, Oliver Hawes, Joshua Bowman, Ruta Gedmintas, Jamie Blackley, Perdita Weeks, Atanas Srebrev, Michael Johnson, Laurel Lefkow


Living in a backwater hovel which makes my home town look happening, 18 year old Amber (Courtney Hope) has aspirations to move to the city. She finally decides to take the plunge after her alcoholic mother (Laurel Lefkow) drunkenly lets slip one evening that her daughter isn't her biological kin at all... Persuading her pot-loving, party animal friends to accompany her on a road trip to check out some potential digs, the troupe of typical teens are grateful for the offer of hitching a ride in the back of passing trucker Bernard's (Bruce Highlander Payne) Arctic lorry after their car conks out mid-journey.

From the “After Dark Originals” stable of horror, Prowl is surprisingly restrained in establishing and building up its premise, with the first half an hour providing zip in the way of actual scares. However, as the journey progresses and Bernard refuses under any circumstances to stop, panic kicks in as the group realise they are trapped. Their fear accumulates when they discover that Bernard's cargo is in fact hundreds of bags of blood. When the lorry finally pulls to a stop and the doors are opened, the group quickly discover that they haven't been freed – they're in a disused slaughterhouse where they're on the menu, being picked off by fanged foes lurking in the shadows...

The blood-sucker's aesthetics are clearly heavily influenced by the terrifically terrifying beady-eyed snarlers from 30 Days of Night (check out my review of the DTV sequel HERE), only these feral beasts have also been granted base-jumping skills and gravity-defying agility to boot. They make for a great enemy, but unfortunately, when the cat-and-mouse chase kicks in, director Syversen refuses to keep the camera still and the frantic movements and constant jump cuts – coupled with the obligatory “gloomy” lighting – mean you miss out on all the bloody decent money shots.

The labyrinthine steampunk-esque slaughterhouse provides plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in, vats to clamber up and shadows to muddle your mind and cloak your presence, but Amber aside, the group of teens – akin to the red-shirted extras on Star Trek away missions – are dispatched far too quickly, and the minute the game-changing twist is revealed the film just gives up, limping to a weak unresolved conclusion after showcasing the biggest trick in its box. It's a real shame as the aberration was set up well without being either too blatantly obvious or too ludicrously outrageous.

For all its potential, Prowl's Achilles heel is definitely its trim runtime (just 70-odd minutes minus end credits). Too much was left unsaid and unresolved: What was the point of the teens texting pictures of the truck to their mates if nobody came to their rescue when they needed it? Were the blood-lovers truly vampires or a different species (after all, they were never referred to as such, weren't allergic to sunlight and no victim reawakened after death)? Why was their leader, Veronica (Saxon Trainor), training them up if she was adamant she wasn't their mother? And why did they need bags of (unrefrigerated) blood if Bernard's primary duty was to pick up future victims anyway?

In a CR@B Shell: Enticing premise, decent set-up, chilling foes and unexpected twist; it's a pity Prowl's camera work is so incomprehensibly hyperkinetic and its finale in such a hurry to scarper that it forgets to answer half the mysteries it sets up, as this “After Dark Original” would otherwise have been a thoroughly decent beast.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Happy Hour (or Two)

Who? Al Murray
Barrel of Fun – Extra
Sunday 17th April 2011
Norwich Theatre Royal
He cancelled last time but made up for it with this extra date in Norfolk's capital

It seems adverse to say that I was apprehensive about going to a live show that I wanted to see enough to book tickets, but when you discover that you're sitting in the second row at a stand up gig where the comedian's entire act revolves around his larger than life persona isolating then poking fun at members of his audience, you can, perhaps, understand my apprehension.

Al Murray, the jolly, jingoistic, in yer face pub landlord is certainly a whirlwind to behold. He took to the Theatre Royal stage on this extra date of his “Barrel of Fun” tour for a mammoth two hours and twenty minutes – and that's after I've deducted twenty minutes for the interval! Value for money for sure, and an almighty stretch considering he barely shuts his motor-mouth for the entire show, even if he is constantly whetting his whistle with pint after pint... after pint!

Even without his iconic bar set for comfort, the maroon-jacketed blurter lost none of his on-stage charisma, so enraptured in his madcap alter ego is he, bounding, chortling and stamping his way through the evening in his Doc Martins. It is masterful how effortlessly he manages to tie audience member's most off-the-wall affectations into riotous – but (mostly) well-meaning – put-downs, zipping through the rows with a barrage of questions and yet somehow being able to take all this on board and refer back to it later in the gig without once slipping up.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I did get picked on. Asked to stand-up to parade my stripy “convict” top to the auditorium, Al then set about ripping me to shreds simply because my favourite book is Frankenstein (well, one of; it was the first title to spring to mind), before coming to the assumption that I must therefore like Star Wars and Doctor Who, too (in fairness, he hit the nail pretty firmly on the head there!) and should most definitely grow up. Oh, and he called me a twat; the charmer!

It may sound harsh, but trust me, I got off lightly compared to some of the other old balls– I mean, members of the public seated around me. I was never returned to, but many found themselves the subject of night-long callbacks and jests; from the guy who worked at Apple (“iPads are shit”), to the “dumb” student wasting three years on a Sports degree (“learning to kick a ball”), and the poor couple who have been going out for three years but still live separately (“sort it out!”). Oh, and then there was the woman who ran an Astronomy-themed B&B... sometimes you can't make it up!

Following the intermission, the second half continued in much the same vein to the first, but gradually became more familiar as Al proceeded to deliver his “inspirational” teachings to us. As he brought out his inflatable globe and started satirising each and every country (all the while hailing “Great” Britain the best), I began to pick up on his well-rehearsed act, having seen him deliver the same routine on various TV shows and DVDs. These “greatest hits” were still hilarious (particularly the topical ad-libs), but lacked the freshness or interactive wit which made the opening act such a hoot. Nevertheless, Al Murray is still well worth checking out live, as every night is guaranteed to be a completely different experience – just try to avoid sitting in the first two rows!

In a CR@B Shell: The laddish landlord was well and truly on form in Norwich, delivering one ale of a funny show. The second half was more structured than the freestyling first, but Al Murray truly shone brightest when ad-libbing insults to his “clientèle”. I'd definitely be up for another round!

Creatureless Feature

Blu Review: MONSTERS
12 – 93mins – 2010
Written by: Gareth Edwards
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy

Film critics – particularly those working at tabloid rags – have a tendency to exaggerate their reactions to films in the vain hope of bagging a quote on the DVD cover. Never before has this been more obvious than with the Daily Mirror's wildly inaccurate praise of Gareth Edwards' debut sleeper hit Monsters. “Thrilling, action packed and totally original” they exalt in their five star review. Now, I'll give them “totally original”, because the vague comparison to the concept of District 9 is dispelled as soon as the film begins, but “thrilling” and “action packed”? Erm, seriously, were we watching the same film?!

I knew before pressing play that, irrespective of the title, the eponymous beasties are far from the main focus of the film. The narrative instead focuses on the arduous trek over quarantined Mexican soil undertaken by photographer Andrew Kaulter (Scoot McNairy) and his bosses daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able). Their goal is to reach the “safe zone” of the US border without being eaten alive by the creatures which have bred uncontrollably since a NASA probe carrying alien samples crash landed in Central America some six years ago.

I won't deny that the direction and cinematography aren't awe-inspiringly beautiful, because they are, but the film's milieu is purposefully restrained, wash-out and barren. Many formerly thriving communities have been devastated and deserted, left to rot with an eerie calm which sets the tone for the film. Writer and director Edwards' hones in on the blossoming relationship between the pair as they bribe, walk and camp across many miles of deadly land and water. Reflective? Yes. Well observed? True. But “Thrilling”? I think not!

Furthermore, the monsters only appear four times in the entire film – the first 45mins passes by with only a brief glimpse over the opening titles and TV news footage to quench your sci-fi desire. Even when the pair are seemingly doomed in a climatic showdown in a deserted gas station, the result is more dreamy than dramatic. Unexpected? Totally. Stunning? You betcha. “Action packed”? Dream on, Daily Mail!

The sheer scale of the hype surrounding this film didn't exactly help my reaction to it. It's undoubtedly an impressive debut which works completely against type, but I really struggled to warm to the characters, which really damages a film's appeal when they appear in every scene! I'll be blunt: Kaulter is a dick. I found him to be curt and unfriendly at the best of times, plus he outright refuses to “babysit” Sam as a favour for his boss – until he sees how attractive she is!! He gets drunk on a stop over at the ferry port – less than 48 hours after meeting her – and tries to get in her knickers, then beds a random tart when engaged Sam rebukes his advances!!

Sam is the more down-to-earth of the pair, but her unexplained issues with her fiancé are not benefited by the inexplicable feelings she forms for Kaulter. Just because a man and a woman spend a period of time together does not mean they have to get together, particularly not when the woman is soon-to-be wed and the man sleeps with anything that will have him. Personally, this diminished by attachment to their plight, and when the alien action is all but absent, I found very little to adore about Monsters.

In a CR@B Shell: A brave and ambient high concept, low key debut which leaves the fantastical on the sidelines and keeps the human focus centre stage. I just don't comprehend quite what everyone is raving about and cannot award Monsters anywhere near as highly as I thought, or hoped, I would.

Friday, 15 April 2011


Blu Review: [REC]²
18 – 81mins – 2009
Written by: Juame Balageuró, Manu Díez and Paco Plaza
Directed by: Juame Balageuró and Paco Plaza
Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Óscar Sánchez Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso, Pep Molina, Andrea Ros, Ális Batllori, Pau Poch, Juli Fábregas, Nico Baixas, Javier Botet, Carlos Olalla, Manuela Velasco


[SPOILERS] I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I laud 2007 Spanish zombie horror [REC] as a modern day genre masterpiece. Tense, claustrophobic and pant-wettingly terrifying, the “found footage” method made for such an immersive experience that you became completely oblivious to the fact you were reading subtitles (which kinda makes the quick fire Hollywood cash-in – sorry: shot-for-shot remake, Quarantine, a wholly unnecessary experience).

Written and directed by the same team of filmmakers (always a good start), and following immediately on from the bleak and abrupt events which closed the shutter on the original, [REC]² delivers a similarly apprehensive atmosphere by returning to the quarantined apartment building in downtown Barcelona to once more face the dead-eyed hordes of rabid inhabitants.

We’re again in shaky-cam point of view mode as an unsuspecting team of SWAT-like GEO’s equipped with helmet-mounted cameras are led into the seemingly deserted hellhole by Ministry of Health official Dr. Owen (Mellor), who isn’t entirely honest about his intentions… It is here that [REC]² makes a daring departure from traditional zombie flicks – and you’ll either love its ingenuity or consider it a leap of faith too far; either way, the film loses none of its intensity or fury as the source of the epidemic is revealed.

There’s not a crashed space probe or leaking vat of nuclear waste in sight – these zombies (if, indeed, that classification even applies?) are possessed by demonic spawn, and “Dr.” Owen is in actuality a priest on a mission from the church to purge the Anti-Christ through the recitation of religious mantra and locating a vile of restorative blood from the original source; namely, the gangling Medeiros girl who dragged reporter Angela (Velasco, who returns here) into the darkness in the penthouse loft in [REC]’s unnerving final reel.

Swapping perspective between the dwindling team of GEO’s and a trio of dangerously curious teen pranksters (Ros, Batllori, Poch) who sneak into the building moments prior to quarantine via the sewer system, [REC]² pulls no punches in its unrestrained carnage as even small rage-infected children are not safe from a shotgun to the head. The speed with which the possessed attack may not be in keeping with George A. Romero’s shuffling corpses, but the heart-racing panic which grips you when the raging beasts surge is undeniably chilling. Watch out, also, for a ceiling-crawler who moves against gravity with spider-like agility.

From Exorcist-like conversations with the tricksy and deceptive devil to night vision-aided hunts in the dark for answers the light “blinds you from seeing”, this kinetic sequel is certainly not afraid to stalk new ground, which is a remarkable achievement when the cameras barely leave the confines of the tower block.

In a CR@B Shell:
A fearlessly courageous diversion from subgenre tradition and inventive expansion of concepts only glimpsed in the first film, [REC]² also doesn’t disappoint on delivering yet another frantic and fraught first-person fright fest of frenzied flesh-feasters. Highly [REC]ommended.

Mug Shot

Muchas CR@Bias to @wisemanthree for this tea-riffic (ahem) birthday present: official CR@B Shack merchandise! I’m now off to the patent office to ™ this bi-atch…

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Walkers' Ready Slaughtered Stiffs

15 - 292mins - 2010
Developed by: Frank Darabont
Based on the comic book series by: Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Executive Producers: Frank Darabont, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert, Robert Kirkman, Charles H. Eglee
Starring: Andrew Lincoln, Joe Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yeun, Andrew Rothenberg, Chandler Riggs, Irone Singleton, Michael Rooker

Genres carry with them certain weights of expectation. For instance, tradition dictates that comic books are action-packed and visually resplendent creations which stretch the limits of the imagination with all manner of supernatural and superhuman heroes and foes. Likewise, zombie horror flicks feature an abundance of limb-trailing, flesh-chomping, gore-splattered set-pieces which turn the stomach and jangle the nerves. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara...” and all that jazz.

Being a zombie horror show based upon a renowned comic book series, AMC’s The Walking Dead had twice the responsibility – nay, thrice, with feature film director (and ace adaptor) Frank The Shawshank Redemption Darabont at the helm – to kick some major ass. Things certainly started promisingly in the epic pilot “Days Gone Bye” (#1.01), which sees our protagonist, Georgia sheriff deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Teachers Lincoln adopting a US twang) awaken from a coma in hospital only to find everyone has deserted him and everything has gone to hell, a la 28 Days Later. Alas, as this promising series progressed, I must confess to being *slightly* let down.

Regulars to The CR@B Shack will know of my near-fanatical appreciation of George A. Romero’s Living Dead saga (see my reviews of Night (1990), Land, Diary and Survival of the Dead) – to say I was pumped for a weekly dose of undead post-apocalyptic carnage is an understatement. And yes, The Walking Dead does look amazing, with the washed-out colour palette perfectly complimenting the desolate wasteland which once was a bustling hive of humanity, and the cinematic special effects are leagues above what a small screen budget would normally accommodate. But season one still failed to sate my gorehound appetite for a number of key reasons.

I am all for directors underlining their visual glamour with satiric depth – Romero peppered all his horror films with stinging societal critiques (decaying zombies = decaying society) – but The Walking Dead seemed far too wrapped up in the human drama aspect, much to the detriment of any legitimate chills. For instance, “Guts” (#1.03) sees Rick join a small group of survivors in Atlanta , only for T-Dog (Singleton) to be viciously pummelled by racist hick Merle (Rooker). In “Tell It to the Frogs” (#1.04), survivor Shane (Bernthal) attacks an uncouth wife-beater to within an inch of his life, while “Vatos” (#1.05) sees a group of hostile city survivors kidnap Greg (Yeun) only for both parties to learn that appearances can be deceiving. Surely, when the world has come to an end, these people have slightly larger concerns than the colour of a man’s skin?

Furthermore, at a mere six episodes, this premiere season was simply too darn short – there was a lack of flow as plot points came to the fore then disappeared completely (leaving many to remain wide open), and because of this the vague story arc – initially of Rick finding his wife (Callies) and son (Riggs), then of the continued survival of the camp – suffered greatly. I’m not au fait with the source story, but these six episodes did not feel like a complete series with any sort of conclusive element.

As the series ends, Rick is still completely clueless to his wife’s awkward love affair with best mate Shane, Merle has escaped in the group’s van never to return, lone wanderers Morgan and son Duane haven’t made it to the camp, Jim’s (Rothenberg) prophetic sunstroke delusions have led to no major revelations, and – most disappointing of all – the decision to leave the forests and convoy to military base the CDC in the hope of finding a cure in “TS-19” (#1.06) granted us a wholly anti-climatic finale which wielded absolutely no kind of breakthrough to the pandemic whatsoever.

I appreciate that real life doesn’t always provide neat answers to every single question, and people do pop into your life then leave just as suddenly, but serialised television requires such conclusions to satisfy the audience; otherwise why do we return week after week if we’re just left hanging? Granted, a second season has been confirmed (to consist of a much more appealing 13 installments) and some plot points will be picked up again there, but a season should be able to stand up on its own as a complete entity, and unfortunately, in that respect, The Walking Dead’s opening season shuffles and lumbers and eventually loses its legs altogether.

In a CR@B Shell: Less a horror and more a heavy-handed comment on society which is so concerned with making humankind look like the villain that it fails to capitalise upon the real rotters. The Walking Dead has promise, but as a zombie nut, I was hoping for more bloody carnage and less survivalist drama.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

This One Time, at Cheer Camp...

15 – 87mins – 2009
Written by: Freedom Jones
Directed by: Will Gluck
Starring: Nicholas D’Agosto, Eric Christian Olsen, Sarah Roemer, Molly Sims, Danneel Harris, David Walton, Juliette Goglia, Adhir Kalyan, Margo Harshman, Hayley Marie Norman, Jake Sandvig, Annalynne McCord, Philip Baker Hall, John Michael Higgins


Coach: “How do you spell ‘fired up’?”
Cheerleaders: “F! U!”
Shawn: “Not really…”

Before he hit the big league with last year's girl-who-cried-whore comedy Easy A (it’s funnier than it sounds; trust my review), director Will Gluck produced another fine – but thoroughly underrated – teen sex comedy in Fired Up! Shawn (D’Agosto) and Nick (Olsen) are two casanova high school football studs who – outraged at the thought of spending an entire three weeks without getting some lady action – ditch football camp in favour of spending the summer at cheer camp.

As cocksure wordsmith Nick works his lips through the 300 fit and limber cheerleading attendees, only stalling when trying to seduce married head coach Diora (Simms), Shawn finds himself falling for the one girl who is clued-up to their underhand motives and impervious to their flirtacious flattery – the captain of their own team, Carly (Roemer), who just so happens to also be dating the biggest douchebag alive in university fresher “Dr.” Rick (Walton).

Carly: “He’s Pre-med… at Illinois ”
Shawn: “Then why do you call yourself doctor?”
Rick: “Why put off the inevitable?”

Sure, the plot is predictably sanguine fare as the camp’s all-important climatic competition looms and Nick pressurises Shawn into jumping ship early in favour of a football player’s house party (love or X-box – hmm, tough choice!!), but Fired Up! has real flair which elevates it above a generic direct-to-video fusion of archetypal genre tent-poles American Pie and Bring It On. Incidentally, the scene in which the entire camp lips syncs along to an outdoor screening of the “iconic” Kirsten Dunst cheer flick is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

All the ingredients which made Easy A such a thoroughly fresh and enjoyably edgy experience are in place: a deluge of self-aware popular culture references (“Animal House reference! LOVE IT!”), witty dialogue (“I told them in Spanish – how much clearer could I have been?”), quotable quips (“….just saying!”), an affinity towards costumed mascots and genuine characters with actual personalities. Sure, there’s also room for the mandatory bad language and (brief) scenes of gratuitous nudity, but even with such sex-obsessed personas, the lead duo are surprisingly likeable lads – and not the single-minded juvenile chumps they first appear to be.

Add into the mix a buoyant, up-beat soundtrack (The Ting Tings, Chumbawumba, Whitesnake, Avril Lavigne, OPP), bright, summery cinematography and a team of uniquely kooky supporting players who breath life into their niche clichés (brainiac younger sister, closet lesbian, camp extrovert, bohemian stoner), and you have yourself a vivacious and varied cheerleader movie which you’ll like even if you “could have one in the mouth and two in the hand and still win a straight award”… What? Just saying!

In a CR@B Shell: Much like a cheer pyramid, Fired Up! is a teen sex comedy which is so much more than the sum of its nimble parts. Spunky characters with audacious attitudes meant that “I was laughing, I, I, was laughing!” and I’m pleased to report that the director didn’t change his game too dramatically for his follow-up effort. “Goooooo Gluck!”

Friday, 8 April 2011

Groundhog Daydream

Cine Review: SOURCE CODE
12A – 93mins – 2011
Written by: Ben Ripley
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Cas Anvar, Russell Peters


[MAJOR SPOILERS] Harnessing the echo of electrical brain activity left behind after a person dies, radical scientists are able to plug a missionary into the last 8 minutes of a soon-to-be-dead person’s consciousness. This is the mind-bending situation Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself in in Source Code, Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones’s much anticipated directorial follow up to his masterful debut Moon.

Under the blunt scrutiny of mission controller Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and project mastermind Dr. Routledge (Jeffrey Wright), Stevens is repeatedly transported into this brief capsule of memory left behind by teacher Sean Fentress, as he and a double-decker trainload of innocent commuters tragically lose their lives in a terrorist-planned explosion which took place earlier that day. It is up to Colter, so he is forcefully reminded, to use these 480 seconds to investigate the carriage and its passengers, to locate the phone detonated bomb and identify its sadistic maker.

There are obvious shades of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap in the body-swapping, time-repeating, scientifically ludicrous concept, but this isn’t time travel (or, indeed, a comedy); the events have already taken place, so using the precious minutes to save individual passengers – such as Sean’s cute colleague Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) – is an exercise in futility. The “source code” must be utilised to analyse and investigate, so to avert any further attacks from the unapprehended bomber.

After the opening 8 minutes, as Colter jolts out of “death” for the first time only to reawaken in a darkened pod with just Goodwin’s face on a monitor for direction, it is clear that the understandably confused and disorientated former helicopter pilot is being lied to. Goodwin and Routledge’s evasive answers reveal only the sketchiest details of Colter’s mission; time is of the essence they keep reminding him, but there is much more to their ambiguity than efficiency…

Source Code was certainly a brave sophomore project for Jones to take on – its blockbusting set pieces, busy cast, jumpy editing and high tempo, race-against-the-clock structure are something of a departure from the reflective subtleties of Sam Rockwell pacing around a space station. Both this and Moon demand the audience take a leap of faith for creativities sake, but while Jones's first feature granted us emotional levity, Source Code’s overly complex internal logic took one too many risks for my liking and ended up falling flat on its overreaching face.

By the film’s third act, Colter has fallen in love with Christina (a woman he has only spent variations of the same 8 minutes with – 8 minutes in which he has had the overriding pressure of hunting out a bomb suspect!) and completely rewritten the laws of time and space, in severe discordance with the programme’s creator’s prior account of the source code’s limitations! I’m sure Jones and writer Ben Ripley could launch into a longwinded, jargonous explanation to verify Colter’s event-altering master plan, but this just screams “PLOT HOLE!” to me.

So, Colter gets closure in his relationship with his father (Scott Baluka) whilst still living happily ever after with the new-found love of his 8 minute (after-)life? But are we seriously meant to swallow that the pair are now living in an alternate dimension of reality where “Sean” foiled the bomber, saved everyone’s lives and is now destined to live out the rest of his days with an Army Captain’s conscience? Is Christina not even a *little* shocked that Sean is no longer Sean but Colter? Does Colter not mind looking in the mirror and seeing Sean’s face?? These are rather major qualms which remain wholly unanswered as the end credits roll...

In a CR@B Shell: An exhilarating and gripping action thriller which sadly unravels in a mess of mumbo-jumbo plot-holes and headache-inducing illogicalities for the sake of a sentimental conclusion. There are fragments of promise here, but ultimately, Source Code is one giant (quantum) leap back from the superior Moon.

The Brawl of Rome

18 – 629mins – 2010
Created by: Stephen S. DeKnight
Executive Producers: Stephen S. DeKnight, Robert Tapert, Sam Raimi, Joshua Donen
Starring: Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Lucy Lawless, Manu Bennett, Viva Bianca, Peter Mensah, Jai Courtney, Nick Tarabay, Erin Cummings, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Katrina Law, Craig Parker

Hyper-stylised in the same green screen heavy comic book fashion as Zack Snyder’s vibrant 300, US channel Starz’s hit historical action series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is an effervescent cacophony of über violent slo-mo battles sequences, hyperbolic gore, full frontal sex scenes and the kind of language that would make even Roy “Chubby” Brown blush. To say it isn’t for the fainthearted is something of an understatement.

The torrent of graphic adult content (purportedly to portray the ancient Roman society as authentically as possible) certainly takes some getting used to; seeing amiable Scot John Hannah – a man best known for his comic roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Mummy – roughly take a slave girl doggy style while he makes idle chatter with his bathing wife, Lucretia (Lucy Xena Lawless), seems a gratuitous exercise in titillating the lowest common denominator, but if you learn to look beyond the frequent vulgarities (and tune out the words “fuck”, “c*nt” and “cock”), you’ll find there’s adequate substance to counterbalance Blood and Sand’s in-your-face style.

The early episodes in this 13 episode first run see our Thracian hero (Andy Whitfield) betrayed by Roman general Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), separated from his loving wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), and enslaved to fight for his life as a gladiator in the ludus (or training compound) of ambitious but lowly domina (master) Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (Hannah). Aside from the grief swirling beneath Spartacus’s buff macho exterior, there’s little depth to the indulgence as heads roll, men fall and claret splatters the screen in overly protracted arena showdowns. Episode 4, “The Thing in the Pit”, is a prime unapologetically visceral standout.

But as the series progresses, layers compound and development is made – so fluid it’s almost subtle – as allegiances are formed, enemies are made and plots are put into motion. The quickly-revered Spartacus befriends fellow slave fighter Varro (Jai Courtney), a man who fights to sustain his wife and child, while Capua ’s champion, the Gual, Crixus (Manu Sinbad Bennett), takes a patent disliking to the newcomer who rivals his crown. Even in the political arena it’s every man for himself, as Batiatus reveals a wickedly devious edge in his acquirement of coin and nobility, and Lucretia prevails through a difficult acquaintanceship with snotty senator’s daughter – and Glaber’s wife – Illithiya (Viva Bianca), purely for societal gain.

Life is insignificant, everyone is a bastard and loyalty is a foreign concept in this dog-eat-dog culture. But there are varying degrees of immorality, and you will find your opinions shifting as frequently as the sands. Meathead Crixus lets his elevated status go to his head and you don’t squirm when he is humbled, but he fights for honour and his secret romance with Lucretia’s servant Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt) proves that a heart beats beneath his six pack. Conversely, Batiatus’s bookkeeper-come-henchman, the crippled Ashur (Nick Tarabay), initially appears harmless enough, but he has a slimy and shrewd manner which saw him fall greatly in my estimations.

I found myself becoming evermore intrigued and attached to the character’s cause as the season advanced and – much like its overworked gladiators – grew ever stronger. A way to judge your enjoyment of Spartacus is to grade your level of outrage as heroes turn to villains and lives are extinguished at a disgraceful rate of knots. Episodes “Delicate Things”, “Mark of the Brotherhood”, “Whore” and “Party Favours” all left me dumb-founded at the unreservedly brave and brazen storytelling, and salivating at the prospect of more to come.

A myriad of personal themes and foiled schemes collide in spectacularly epic fashion in the season finale “Kill Them All” as a vengeful Spartacus leads Batiatus’s gladiator throng in an uprising against their insidious dominus. The relentless pace and interweaving punchlines to many of the character’s long-fated journeys highlights just how many threads this thrilling saga has deftly spun and juggled inbetween the headline-grabbing, crowd-pleasing spectacle of tits and titans. Clearly you can have your cock and eat it…

In a CR@B Shell: Flesh and death are in abundance in this testosterone-pumped swords and scandal saga. Lower your inhibitions, adjust to the primal attitude and ostentatious styling and soon you’ll discover that Blood and Sand is a powerhouse of titillating storytelling which rewards greatly for sticking with its bold, base characters. Glory awaits, brave viewer.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Wail of the Weeping Woman

15 – 81mins – 2010
Story by: Brett Anstey, Russell Friedrich, Rob Townshend
Screenplay by: Brett Anstey
Directed by: Brett Anstey
Starring: Renee Willner, Bridget Neval, Dawn Klingberg, Taryn Eva, Danny Alder, Mark Taylor, Peter Stratford


Every week you'll witness a smattering of schlocky new genre releases dotted around the lower echelons of supermarket's DVD charts. Be they cheap cash-in sequels (such as the recent Mirrors 2) or small independent passion projects (such as the “After Dark Originals” series), few are worth shelling out your hard earned pennies for. There's a reason they didn't get a wide release, after all. Every now and then, however, one such cinema-evading spooker piques my novelty-susceptible interest – and 2010's Damned by Dawn, from intriguingly-monikered Australian's “The Amazing Krypto Bros”, certainly did that.

Admittedly, I was initially drawn to what I thought was a fanged vampire on the UK's whitewashed cover (see bottom pic), but a read through of the synopsis did little to dampen my interest; a soul-collecting Banshee with a scream to raise the dead sounded refreshingly original. And original Damned by Dawn undoubtedly is – even if my admiration was blotched by mild disappointment by the roll of the end credits.

As the life seeps evermore noticeably from her bed-ridden grandmother (Klingberg), twenty-something Claire O'Neill (Willner) returns to her father's (Stratford) run-down farmhouse for the first time in 18 months – with her boyfriend Paul (Alder) in tow. As Nana starts talking of a woman who will come to claim her soul when she passes, a spooked out Claire dismisses the creepy chatter as little more than illogical ravings – until the family are awoken by piercing shrieks in the middle of the night and their home is under threat from the recently risen dead; under the command of a wailing woman in white...

The screen continually cloaked in a dense fog, and the narrative unfolding entirely on the grounds of the eerie and isolated rural house, the filmmakers certainly cannot be accused of not summoning up a remarkably appropriate atmosphere. The Banshee – a blood-stained, ghost-faced, rag-wearing spirit – is a genuinely creepy creation. Alas, it soon becomes clear that her arsenal of abilities is strickly limited to floating and shrieking (the majority of which she does off screen) – making her no more fearsome than the ghouls she awakens.

On the subject of the ghouls – unearthed, supernaturally animated corpses – you have to admire the FX department for their budget-restricted effort, but, in truth, flying skeletons are not scary, and some of the atmosphere attributed to the Banshee is irredeemably eradicated by these ludicrous foes. Nonetheless, I will conceed to being impressed by the sequence in which Claire and her father speed away from the house in a car as countless airborne ghouls fly at the panic-stricken escapees.

Attempts to justify and add depth to the horrific events by tying the modern day phenomena to the O'Neill's family history by way of a black and white photograph, an heirloom urn and diary extracts from generations past are well meaning but ultimately fall short of lucid. As do the poorly-executed endeavours to grant the human characters with rounded personalities (the father's quickly forgotten kookiness; Claire's scarcely unmentioned secret). Ultimately, the film's greatest elements are the most gory (a gut-spewing, unrelenting zombie attack in the kitchen), and although the make-up is slapped on a little thick in parts, Damned by Dawn is an admirably gutsy independent chiller.

In a CR@B Shell:
Small in scale but big in ambition, Brett Anstey's Damned by Dawn may forsake some of its unearthly ambiance with unintentionally gigglesome adversaries, but make no mistake – there is a gallant and damned spirited concept at the core of this low budget offering.

Back to the Futurama

12 – 286mins – 2010
Created by: Matt Groening
Developed by: Matt Groening and David X. Cohen
Executive Producers: Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Ken Keeler
Starring the voice talents of: Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker


Good news, me! Now that I once more have a multi-region DVD player nestled in my laboratory alongside my horde of doomsday devices, I am opened up to a wealth of audio/visual entertainment I would previously not have been privy to – and I'm not just referring to my stash of episodes from that banned religion S*** T***! Top of my must-buy list was this latest volume of intergalactic satire from the wondrous noggin of The Simpsons’ brainchild Matt Groening. Huzzah!

The mind boggles as to why the robot hell Sky One has yet to set a UK transmission date (or why Fox have yet to release the set on region 2), but don’t let that mislead you: Fly, Leela, Bender, Zoidberg and the rest of the Planet Express crew are well and truly back, baby! So strap yourselves in, fill your tank with dark matter, sweet talk the auto pilot and prepare for an intergalactic voyage on the Comedy Central Channel, meatbags!

Rescued from the black hole of cancellation and back on an all new channel, this “sixth season” (if we count the four DVD movies as a 16 episode run) has been split in two, with this first volume of 13 episodes being followed in June 2011 by another 13. Spread over two discs, the episodes look fantastic in widescreen format, even in spite of all the much-debated budgetary cuts resultant from a move to a cable network. The scenes rendered in 3D (of particular note a scene from “The Mutants Are Revolting” in which Bender remains static while holding a combustible soufflé as the ship jilts and wobbles around him) look particularly clean and vivid.

Series premiere “Rebirth” is a necessary bridge between fourth movie Into the Wild Green Yonder’s apparently conclusive finale and a return to the status quo – via a vat of stem cells, a robo-Leela and a Cyclops-scoffing monster. It’s as genre barmy as Futurama has ever been, but the true belly laughs don’t kick in until episode two’s riff on Adam and Eve with Zapp and Leela stranded (and nude!) on a lush Eden-like planet. Oh my!

The satire comes thick and fast in “Attack of the Killer App” and “Proposition Infinity”, in which we witness space-age riffs on a technologically enslaved iPhone nation, Twitter, Susan Boyle (yes, really!) and Proposition 8 (only the right for homosexuals to marry has been tweaked to campaign for robosexual union as Bender and Amy do the nasty, much to the Professor’s chagrin). It’s great that a series set a thousand years in the future is still able to make pertinent points about contemporary issues, although at times it does feel a little too closely related to reality.

Fry’s innate idiocy is once more mined in “The Duh Vinci Code” (no prizes for guessing the inspiration behind that one!), where the Fry and his great-great-great-great-gr.... nephew unlock a secret hidden in the great Renaissance artist’s works which sees them transported to an alien world where the man himself still lives – and is taunted for his relative “stupidity” by a race of gifted aliens. The source reference has long since past its kitsch peak, the story is far too much of a stretch and the plot weak, making this one of my least favoured episodes of the new batch.

One of, I say, because that dishonour is held by the (mid-) season closer “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular”, which I may dare to suggest is the worst episode of Futurama ever – and I usually love the non-canonical anthology episodes! Here we get three mini-adventures, each based around a resource-saving environmental cause related to a religious holiday: Xmas, “Robonica” and Kwanzaa . The plots are awkward and forced, the incessant musical numbers sound dreadfully rushed and – the icing on the Popplers – the Space Bees first seen in Series 4’s “The Sting” speak – in English!

Now that I’ve released my rage in the angry dome, I’ll move on to more positive subjects. Far and away the new season’s crowning glory is “The Late Philip J. Fry”, a story with such awe-inspiring scope, yet such intimate sentiment, it defies belief. Fry, Bender and the Professor set off through the ages in a time machine which only travels forward, jilting Leela on her birthday – and subsequently throughout the rest of her life! Will the time travellers ever return home? Will Leela ever forgive Fry for standing her up? Will mankind really be ensalved to giraffe's in the future? Sweet, touching and amazingly crafted whilst remaining as witty as ever, and it's undoubtedly an instant Futurama classic in just 22minutes.

Other successful episodes are “Lethal Inspection”, in which Hermes and Bender team up to track down the Bureaucrat who failed to notice a mortal glitch in Bender’s programming, “That Darn Katz!”, in which Nibbler and Amy must try to stop a race of irresistibly cute felines from altering the orbit of the earth, and the aforementioned “The Mutants Are Revolting”, the series' 100th episode benchmark, which sees the crew sentenced to a spell in the sewers – and will have an almighty impact on the future demarcation of the deformed sub-species in all future episodes.

If I’m being unreservedly honest, a couple of potentially great premises do fall *slightly* short of the mark in such episodes as body-swap farce “The Prisoner of Benda” and the return of the rulers of Omicron Persai 8 in “lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences” (excellent Comic-Con prologue exempt). The feeling that, after reaching their centenary, the writers are trying too hard to keep storylines as fresh – yet characters, in-jokes and callbacks as familiar – as possible is a clearly observed contradiction. Nevertheless, there is more than enough laugh-out-loud content within this baker's dozen of all-new escapades to be deemed a successful, and oh so welcome, reboot.

In a Decapodian's Shell: Thank the Robot Devil, my favourite Matt Groening animation is reborn! Futurama – Volume 5 delivers a veritable feast of in-jokes, modern day satire and Dr. Zoidberg, and although some episodes don't *quite* hit the shows lofty zenith of old, anyone who doesn't rejoice at the return of this continually rewatchable space-com can bite my hairy human ass!