Friday, 29 July 2011

Riddle Me That

12 – 121mins – 1995
Story by: Lee Batchler and Janet Scott-Batchler
Screenplay by: Lee Batchler, Janet Scott-Batchler and Akiva Goldsman
Based on the characters created by: Bob Kane and Bill Finger
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Drew Barrymore, Debi Mazar, Ed Begley Jnr.

Congratulations to Ian Montgomery for deciphering the correct answer to my prior-posted riddle (reacquaint yourselves HERE); alas, I've no prize to give away except the pride for being right. The rather obvious answer was, of course, Batman Forever, and my microcosmic brain-teaser ushers in the second in my sporadic and unchronological blitz through Bat flicks old and new which I began last month with Batman & Robin (read my long-but-fair review HERE, if you dare!).

The second sequel to Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic big screen introduction, Forever is unofficially regarded as the beginning of the end of the first anthology of Bat-busters: Burton was reduced to producer and Joel Schumacher brought in as director because studio heads at Warner Bros. were concerned that 1992’s Returns was too dark and the mood needed lightening (a decision they thoroughly regretted some two years later when B&R’s dire reception lead to the canning of proposed fifth film Batman Triumphant).

Previous lead Michael Keaton (wisely) jumped ship and Val Kilmer was brought in – without reading the script in must be noted, leading to many an on-set conflict and the need to replace him for B&R – as the billionaire with a penchant for violent do-gooding. Despite playing Harvey Dent in Batman, Billy Dee Williams wasn’t even considered for the role of the disfigured D.A. “Two Face” here, the dubious honour instead going to Tommy Lee Jones. Michael Gough as butler Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon returned as reassurance that we are still in the same diegetic universe.

Prior to my rewatching of Batman & Robin, I did actually attempt to watch Forever first, sticking on the disc one evening in the hope of rekindling my childhood love of the film. I say attempt because I didn’t even get beyond eccentric inventor Edward Nygma’s (Jim Carrey) brain-draining murder of his boss, Fred Stickley (Ed Begley Jnr.), before my irritation reached fever pitch and I turned it off. The juxtaposition between moody and mad just didn’t sit well with me – at least B&R knew it was camp frivolity and never attempted to be anything else, whereas I found Forever to be awkwardly stuck between darkness and lighthearted.

Last week, however, I prepared myself and made it all the way through. In fact, I re-evaluated my exasperation because I realised how ironically apt it is that a film which deals with a menagerie of duplicitous and delusional wack-jobs is indeed a schizophrenic beast itself. “Two Face” is the literal visualisation of this juxtaposition, but Edward Nygma is also a genius with an unpredictably psychotic alter ego in “The Riddler”, and Bruce Wayne himself is a respected businessman who plays vigilante superhero dressed as a giant Bat. It’s no wonder a psychologist (Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian) is playing the love interest with all these dual natures running rampant!

Fans bemoaned the bringing in of orphan Dick Grayson, AKA. sidekick Robin (Chris O’Donnell) – particularly because O’Donnell was too old for the “Boy Wonder” role – but I think this was handled well, even if it could be argued that Batman works better alone and doesn’t need a kid to assist him! The circus-based murder of Dick’s family at the hands of “Two Face” nicely mirrored Bruce’s pain of watching his own parent’s being shot down, while dressing the Flying Grayson’s in the same garish outfit which the camp 60’s TV version of Robin donned was a neat little in-joke (so too the tongue-in-cheek line “Holey rusted metal, Batman!”).

While the age-old movie complaint of “How the hell could these people afford all this equipment, costumes and interior renovations?!” does diminish the believability of The Riddler’s elaborate plan to drain Gotham’s brain-power and harness it for himself using his hi-tech Nymatech headgear (seriously, the giant construction and climactic island locale just appeared out of nowhere, already constructed and fully operational), but a number of vast script alterations mid-production did cut the film from a bum-numbing 2hours 40mins to the 121minute mark, so it is likely that a lot of exposition was lost in the chop.

Whether Joel Schumacher’s fabled Director’s Cut (missing from this otherwise decently thorough Blu-ray set) would successfully smooth over the jolts in tone (quipping one liners one minute to mournful moody reflection the next) remains to be seen, but what we are left with isn’t a complete shambles, it just fails to hit the heights of Burton’s pitch-black predecessors while slowly ushering in the toyetic exuberance which temporarily killed off the franchise in a blaze of neon inanity.

In a CR@B Shell: Uneven and dualistic in tone, Batman Forever is neither spectacular nor unwatchable (provided you’re prepared for the change in direction), but it is often awkward in its uncertainty of how sinister or zany to be – a flaw which is just as much the studio’s fault as it is Schumacher’s.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Riddle Me This

I’m the beginning of the end
My wings clipped to fit in
I’m dark yet light
Successful yet disliked
Solemn yet daft
The same yet poles apart
What am I?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Maid of Dishonour

15 – 125mins – 2011
Written by: Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig
Directed by: Paul Feig,
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolf, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh, Matt Lucas, Rebel Wilson, John Hamm


Surpassing the hardly meagre takings of other Judd Apatow-produced big hitters such as Superbad and Knocked Up, the Kristen Wiig co-written Bridesmaids has proven beyond any questionable doubt that sisters can do it for themselves. By “it” of course I mean: get pissed, act like crude kids and royally fuck up to comedic success – but hey, if it’s good enough for the Wolfpack…

Wiig (Whip It!, Paul) grants herself top billing, starring as 30-something Annie, a woman who always thinks she’s hitting rock bottom, until the next disaster befalls her shambles of a life. Dumped, penniless and renting a room from a pair of clueless chubby siblings (Wilson and Lucas) after her bakery business went bust in the recession, Annie futility pines for more from her arrogant fuck buddy (Mad Men’s Hamm) while driving a shit-heap of a car and making ends meet as a lowly cashier at a high street jewellers.

Annie’s life-long BFF, Lillian (Wiig’s MacGruber co-star Rudolf), meanwhile, seems to be moving onwards and upwards with her life, having recently gotten engaged and befriending her fiancé’s boss’s glamorous, loaded and oh-so-perfect wife, Helen (Byrne). Lillian naturally asks Annie to be her maid of honour, but this doesn’t stop jealousy immediately flaring up as bridesmaid’s old and new compete for Lillian’s allegiance in the lead up to her big day.

Supported by an ensemble of colourful misfit cohorts (McLendon-Covey, Kemper and McCarthy), Annie and Helen attempt to give Lillian her dream send-off, but their competitive natures often lead to cringingly awkward but laugh-out-loud hilarious calamities which begin to threaten Annie’s friendship with Lillian – and her involvement in the fast-approaching nuptials.

Wiig is fantastically credible in the central role; Annie’s depressing situation evoking sympathy from the audience without her frustrations becoming so despairingly insurmountable that you pity her plight. The authenticity of the social drama is sometimes at odds with the gross-out humour (shitting in the street being the ultimate low) – to such an extent that you feel the film would still be watchable even without the juvenile laughs – but an interesting (if potent) cocktail it sure does make.

McCarthy is also impressive as the vulgar, no-nonsense porker of the pack, Megan, who plays the oddball role with confidence and gusto without becoming the offensive loser that Zach Galifianakis became in The Hangover Part II (reviewed HERE). But for me the stand-out performance goes to The IT Crowd’s leading Irishman Chris O’Dowd who plays amiable traffic cop Nathan Rhodes. Down-to-earth, charming and fun; he’s the kind of guy Annie should be dating, proving that if women can act like drunken louts, then men can be caring and kind-hearted. See, we aren’t all self-obsessed jerks.

In a CR@B Shell: A combustible cocktail of humorous and heartfelt, Bridesmaids is an engaging comedy-drama which bestows its 30-plus femmes with kaleidoscopic shades to their personalities beyond the customary disapproving spouse stereotype. At just over two hours, however, it does feel like it could do with a trim to up the pace and sustain enthusiasm.

Hyde and Peep

15 – 87mins – 2011
Written by: Antti J. Jokinen and Robert Orr
Directed by: Antti J. Jokinen
Starring: Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Christopher Lee, Lee Pace, Aunjanue Ellis


[SPOILERS] Initially earmarked as the iconic horror studio’s tentpole comeback release after nearly 30 years in production hibernation, Hammer Films’ The Resident fell out of favour and was overshadowed by Matthew Reeves’ Swedish vamp remake Let Me In (reviewed HERE), eventually snuck out on home video format* to scarce fanfare earlier this month – despite a surprisingly healthy A-list cast.

Oscar winner Hilary Swank is game for whatever the script asks of her (and it asks her for a couple of nekkid bath shots) as newly SWF Juliet Devereau, an ER doc who moves into an apartment owned by singleton carpenter Max (Watchmen’s Morgan) and occupied by his frail grandfather August (Lee, in a return to the studio that made him).

As Juliet tries her hardest to make a fresh start and get over her cheating ex (Pace), Max seems like the perfect antidote: charming, funny, attractive (well, behind that scraggily tramp beard at least) – but his amiable façade hides a dangerous obsession which turns Juliet’s dream apartment into a living live-in nightmare…

While copious sly peephole shots create a fittingly claustrophobic atmosphere, Antti J. Jokinen’s voyeuristic thriller sadly falls short of success due to its lack of tension and a stripped down, linear plot. Within 10minutes Juliet is already paranoid of every creak and shuffle, and after just half an hour the timeline is reset to show Max stalking her every move, just out of camera.

A couple of doorway glances and a “welcome to the building” basket aside, suspicious August is never utilized as an efficient red herring to his “weak” grandson’s fetishistic perversions. He hints at knowing about Max’s shady activities (“I know everything that goes on in this building”) and he makes hazy suggestions that a troubled, parentless upbringing has lead to Max’s moral deficiencies, but bed-bound August is dispatched before making a discernable dent on the story.

Morgan and Swank spark superbly in the opening clutch of scenes as nice guy Max charms his guarded tenant and romance blossoms, but Morgan is so successful at pulling off cordial and sociable that when he slips behind the walls and puts on his finger-licking, victim-sedating stalker hat you struggle to believe this vicious psychologically-damaged beast is the same sweet character. Beyond schizophrenic, the transformation verges on Jekyll and Hyde in its demands for implausibly contrary characterisation from the man who was The Comedian.

In a CR@B Shell: A disturbing and moody "landlord from hell" genre flick which disappointingly dispels any suspense far too swiftly with an omniscient eye and a dubiously duplicitous villain who could easily be played by two completely different actors.
* Wikipedia alleges the film received a limited UK cinema outing in March 2011, but I certainly never came across it.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Hogwarts and All

12A – 130mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Steve Knowles
Based on the novel by: J. K. Rowling
Directed by: David Yates
Starring:Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Matthew Lewis, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, Jason Isaacs, Evanna Lynch, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane… and about a trillion others…


[SPOILERS AHEAD] So here we are. 2011. The end of the end. No, not the apocalypse, but the final part of the final film in the indescribably popular seven novel/eight film Harry Potter juggernaut. This is it, muggles – the end of many people's childhood (well, until interactive website Pottermore goes live in October at least), the ultimate showdown: bespectacled outsider Harry Potter (Radcliffe) versus the serpentine dark lord Voldemort (Fiennes). The Boy Who Lived, come to die...

I'm almost embarrassed to admit it now, but a decade ago, prior to the globally anticipated release of Chris Columbus' nauseatingly saccharine Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone adaptation, I really didn't imagine us getting to this late stage with still this much – if not more – fevered fanfare for the seventh sequel in the boy wizard series.

Don't misunderstand me, it wasn't because I didn't like J. K. Rowling's novels (I certainly did – and still do) or because I had little faith in the big screen conversions, but simply because I couldn't imagine the public sticking with a saga for that many closely-released instalments without losing interest or the quality dwindling as the young actors were replaced every two or three films and the magic was lost (this was definitely suggested at an early stage in the production – seriously glad they never followed that idea through). I guess I was, in my 17 year old mind, aligning the Harry Potter franchise alongside bargain bucket pap like the latter Police Academy drivel. Boy was I naïve...

But I've grown a lot, learned a lot and watched a lot since 2001, and I can now fully comprehend why these mesmerizing magical marvels have so enraptured a generation of children and adults alike. As the loose-end-tying encore, it was nigh-on guaranteed that Deathly Hallows Part Two would go out with an almighty bang – and in that sense this epic conclusion certainly does not disappoint: from a break-neck break-in to Bellatrix Lestrange's (Bonham Carter) private vault at Gringotts to a rallying of the troops prior to the last stand against He Who Shall Not Be Named's army of rabid Death Eaters, this fourth David Yates-directed instalment is almost non-stop action!

Picking up the frantic pace immediately from where 2010's Part One (reviewed HERE) pressed pause, and despite covering just a third of the final novel's plot, Part Two's opening Bank raid still feels curiously rushed – and far too easy for a trio of students to achieve given the elevated level of supernatural security that is supposedly meant to safeguard the community's fortunes against such invasions; even if Harry, Ron (Grint) and Hermoine's (Watson) ongoing hunt for the remaining Horcruxes which possess Voldemort's dissected soul is a worthy cause.

After spending a film out of their comfort zone wandering the real world, the return to the iconic safehouse that is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a welcome one: even if the makeshift battleground does take one hell of a hammering as Voldemort and his cronies unleash all manner of dark magic on the former stronghold. But even if the towers tumble, our heroes come out of the fracas stronger than ever, with long-overdue character-defining moments for Professor McGonagall (Smith), Neville Longbottom (Lewis) and Mrs Weasley (Walters) inducing huge grins amidst the descending chaos.

And before you ask: yes, this final film is by far the darkest of them all – as if you hadn't guessed the trend years ago! Death, destruction and disfigurement, giant spiders, ghostly apparitions and freaky Voldemort-shaped fetus-thingies (brace yourselves, kids!) are all in ripe supply in this sumptuous-yet-brutal clash of good versus evil.

Warwick Davis in a dual role as both Griphook the Goblin and Professor Flitwick is granted more screentime than ever, while Ron and Hermoine's sophomore visit to the Chamber of Secrets, the return of the Giants and acromantulas and flashback footage from previous films all help provide this epic send off with a unified retrospective veneer: it's great to see this dense and detailed universe come together one final time – and for a very vital occasion!

But despite the grandiose of the fancy fireworks, I was actually more impressed by the film's rare quieter moments: two stand out scenes for me were shady Snape's (Rickman) belated redemption via a very revealing saga-spanning final dive into the memory reviewing Pensieve and Harry's emotional pre-face off pep talk from his dearly departed guardian angels. Alexandre Desplat's resonant and haunting orchestration provides a potent soundtrack to these more personable and reflective breathing spaces.

A lack of coherence in deducing how many Horcruxes remain to be destroyed (is Voldemort's pet snake Nagini or Harry himself the final one - or is it somehow both?), a lack of suspense as a wand-blasted Harry leaps out of Hagrid's (Coltrane – underused) arms and back from the “dead”, and a slightly anticlimactic future-set epilogue (yes, it's Harry's journey come full circle, but it's hardly spectacular stuff) are but minor gripes in an otherwise storming send off to J. K. Rowling's spectucular empire. Shame it had to end, really...

In a CR@B Shell: It's not perfect, but Deathly Hallows Part Two is a valiant, glossy and passionate conclusion to a truly remarkable ten year cinematic broom-ride. Our lightening-scarred guide to the joys and horrors of the wizarding world has come a long way since he emerged from that cupboard under the stairs – and you can't deny you haven't enjoyed watching him; even if his first two adventures do seem mighty twee when compared to the darkness that followed...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Some Kind of Wonderful

Who? James Blunt
What? Live
When? 15th July 2011
Where? Newmarket Racecourse, Suffolk
Why? Part of the Newmarket Nights series of live events

“I can see a lot of happy faces in the crowd tonight,” beamed former British Army officer James Hillier Blount (no, that's not a typo) on the hastily erected Newmarket Nights stage on Friday evening. “You do know I've got a hundred miserable songs? Are you sure you're at the right gig?” He was, of course, riffing on his unfairly labelled persona of being an artist to slit your wrists to.

But even though his biggest and most depressing songs from debut album Back to Bedlam (“You're Beautiful”, “Goodbye My Lover”, “Wiseman”, “High”) were all present in his nearly 90minute set (I don't think he'd have got away with not playing them, to be honest), they were muddled in successfully amidst album tracks and jauntier singles from his latter LPs (All the Lost Souls and last year's Some Kind of Trouble - reviewed HERE) to create a truly fabulous rollercoaster of a setlist.

To put an end to any naysayers: No, Mr Blunt did not just spend the entire gig sat at his piano or frozen to the spot with his guitar around his neck. Please banish this prejudicial image of a boring stage artist from your mind. He interacted splendidly with the crowd, chatting between numbers and continually moving across to acknowledge, wave at each side and even jump up onto his piano. “You're probably the best dressed audience I've ever played to,” he remarked teasingly, keeping the mood cheery and never dull.

A frustrating block of people (I'm guestimating 30 or so) surged passed us and out of the gates following “You're Beautiful” – clearly fair-weather fans who were there for the evening's horse racing (which acted as the warm-up act, so to speak) and only had hung around to hear his most renowned track. The crowd certainly loved it as they sang along to the international 2005 mega hit and I was surprised that it wasn't his encore number (that pleasure went to the second album's opener “1972” which was played with epic aplomb).

Those party-poopers (sorry, early leavers) certainly lost out as what followed was the most buoyant and festive run of the night, including personal favourite “So Long Jimmy” and indisputable highlight “I'll Be Your Man” which was extended with a funky middle eight which dissolved into the Jackson Five's “I Want You Back” as James motioned for the first few rows to converge and carry him home as he jumped in and crowd-surfed like a true rock god! I'm sure he probably does this during most nights on tour (venue dependent) but for me it was a unexpected delight and really capped off a spectacular Newmarket night.

In a CR@B Shell: Full of energy and exuding confidence with a blistering and diverse collection of emotional and blistering pop songs, the man with a hundred miserable melodies was an absolute revelation live and I would easily have stayed the night at this Suffolk concert event. To quote from his biggest hit: You could see from my face that I was fucking high!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Metal Fatigue

12A – 155mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Ehren Kruger
Based on “Transformers” Action Figures by: Hasbro
Directed by: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Francis McDormand, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, Peter Cullen (voice), Leonard Nimoy (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice)


There’s no getting around it: I watch a lot of films. Too many, probably. For this reason there’s no avoiding the occasional turkey; it’s inevitable. But even so it feels like a bloody long time since I last saw a film which blew me away. Take a look back at my last ten reviews: you’ll see a host of two and three star verdicts; average fluff which failed to live up to expectations. When will this slump end? When will I once more leave a cinema or eject a disc and barely be able to contain my glee at the wonder which has just enthralled and enchanted me? Certainly not with Transformers: Dark of the Moon – quite the opposite, in fact…

“You lied to us!” rages a truly pissed off Optimus Prime (Cullen), megalithic leader of the Autobots (they’re the good guys) and part time truck cab. He may be venting at government agent Charlotte Mearing (McDormand), but he nevertheless pretty much sums up my reaction to this chaotic and overblown turd of a second sequel to Michael Bay ’s action figure-based blockbuster. If you think I’m being harsh and unreasonable already, then brace yourself.

2007’s Transformers was a genuinely enjoyable larger-than-life sci-fi action adventure, with the robots in disguise fleeing their crumbling planet of Cybertron and bringing their civil war to Earth. Follow up Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was an awkward beast; as much as I was entertained by the ramped-up humour in this depiction of the reawakening of the eeeevil Decepticon’s leader The Fallen while I was watching it, hindsight did it no favours and relegated my enjoyment to mortification.

Following a ridonkulously ma-hoosive box office take which guaranteed no magnitude of critical dissatisfaction would prevent a third instalment, Bay – after initially citing “my brain needs a break from fighting robots”– quickly changed his tune and set to work, promising any naysayers that the stoopid tomfoolery and dumb-ass robo-characters which disgraced RotF would be dialled down in favour of a return to the successful balance of fun and fighting achieved in the original.

“You lied to us!”

For all its portence at an elevated maturity with an impressively grand opening sequence which shows the *ahem* “true” but oh-so-top-secret reason for man’s race to the moon in 1969 (to investigate the crash site of an Autobot ship called The Ark, purportedly), Dark of the Moon all too quickly falls back into cringeworthy slapstick – and stays in that uncouth yobbish mode where “dickhead” “kick ass” and “shit” are dialogue standards for the following two and a half freakin’ hours of deplorably trite – yet ostensibly family friendly – farce.

Fresh out of college, everyman hero Sam Witwicky – now with new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley) after Megan Fox was dropped for Bay-bashing – is harbouring two gobby miniature Autobot refugees (who are most irked at being treated like pets) in his pad while he desperately tries to find a job which gives him the same feeling of responsibility a man who has twice before saved mankind is accustomed.

Meanwhile, on a military-aiding mission to Chernobyl, Optimus and the Autobots discover a Decepticon-possessed fuel cell from the presumed destroyed Ark which leads them to the crash sight on the moon and the uncovering of an “off-line” Sentinel Prime (Nimoy) – the robot who Prime took over from as leader – and his creation, the Pillars, which, when used in unison, can open up a Space Bridge between two points in space. You with me so far?

It transpires that the revival of Sentinel and recovery of the Pillars was a Decepticon ploy (they’re certainly living up to their name, the blighters) as Optimus – holder of the All-Spark (the catalytic McGuffin from the first film) – is the only machine with the ability to kick-start his former chief and thus allow the Pillars to be used to transport Cybertron (a planet, don’t forget – this jargon is a joke) to Earth – thus wiping out humankind and rebuilding the mechanoid’s homeworld. Nothing’s ever small with Michael Bay, is it?!

As if all of this robo-action wasn’t enough, pretty much every human actor from the previous two films shows up as well, even when surplus to requirements (Dunn and White as the Witwicky’s are the biggest culprits), while the gargantuan cast is even further bloated by well known faces (Malkovich, Dempsey, The Hangover’s Jeong) hamming it up like hyperactive fools. It’s a disorderly nightmare of a mess to be honest: chaos reigns with too much happening all the time, both plot-wise and aesthetically.

When the camera remains stationary for long enough for you to immerse yourself in the diegesis, the 3D upgrade actually does impress – it’s just exceedingly rare that all hell isn’t breaking lose on screen leaving you lost for a single focal point. Our poor planet doesn’t exactly come out of Dark of the Moon all too well, with the plot all too frequently descending into a frenetic excuse for a fight with giant toys pummelling the scrap out of one enough and taking not just entire buildings but streets and pockets of petrified people with them too.

Rom-com regular Dempsey does pretty well outside his comfort zone as a traitorous Decepticon spy, even if it is hard to stand out against the bedlam, while Huntington-Whiteley is little more than eye candy for the men (at one point Dempsey compares her to the curves on a classic car while the camera lingers perversely on her stunning bod), standing around pouting excessively and looking vacuous as the world crumbles around her.

Well, almost. As CGI carnage dominates in the overblown war zone climax, Carly is making her way to safety when she happens upon wounded head Decepticon Megatron (Weaving) – a demented and villainous giant robot, lest we forget, who orchestrated the very battle which has decimated the city and killed hundreds. So what does this insignificant and unarmed girl do? Why she walks right up to him and verbally abuses him, labelling him “Sentinel’s bitch”, of course!! WTF?! It’s just one of a myriad of implausible but allegedly “awesome” moments which irreparably damage this once thrilling franchise. Please, Michael Bay , no more lies; no more of this shit!

In a CR@B Shell: A “prime” example of a bull-headed director thinking he knows best and totally dropping the ball: completely ignoring Revenge of the Fallen’s copious critics and deceiving fans into expecting a superior and less juvenile cluster fuck, Transformers: Dark of the Moon instead exemplifies the first sequel’s faults to an embarrassing and headache-inducing franchise nadir.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

What Makes a Manimal?

12 – 99mins – 1977
Screenplay by: Al Ramus and John Herman Shaner
Based on the 1896 novel by: H. G.Wells
Directed by: Don Taylor
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart, Nick Cravat, Fumio Demura

I had actually ordered the much-detracted Marlon Brando-starring 1996 remake – a film I never hated as much as the general consensus yet I hadn't actually seen since I last watched my now obsolete (well, in my house at least) VHS copy waaaay back in the day. When this earlier adap of H.G. Wells' sci-fi allegory of man's overly controlling attitude towards nature arrived in error (no doubt due to its lack of popularity, the newer film is darn hard to obtain, while this '77 version was granted a 2008 Optimum re-release), I decided to give it a look-see nonetheless.

Michael York – exasperatingly, a man I will evermore regard as Basil Exposition from Austin Powers – plays the re-named protagonist Andrew Braddock, washed ashore on an exotic island after surviving the sinking of his ship. Taken in by the tropical isle's sole household, Andrew becomes a guest of the scientist Dr. Moreau (Lancaster), a brilliant and determined man who conducts his radical research with the help of an associate, Montgomery (Davenport), and a slew of Neanderthalic servants native to the island.

As Braddock awaits the next cargo ship to hitch a ride home, he begins to learn more about Moreau's unorthodox experiments; inhumane experiments which tamper with the untamperable. Convinced he can create a race of fully sentient animal/human hybrids who will live in a “civilised” society and abide by a set of laws much like man does, Moreau plays God and threatens to turn this lush jungle paradise into a sinister and ugly living hell.

With a concept which drips “exotic”, "perverse" and “bizarre” from every pore, I was disappointed that this seventies incarnation was a rather flat and dispassionate depiction. Lancaster's Moreau may be visually akin to his prose namesake (something Brando's outlandish reinvention certainly wasn't), but he was far too calm and blasé for a man so utterly devoted to a cause that he is blind to reason. I never believed that he truly believed in his monstrous vision, and I likewise failed to sense a strong-enough objection from York's ostensibly outraged Braddock.

Furthermore, the make-up and creature effects – while undeniably impressive for their time – failed to really sell the atrocious aspect of Moreau's Frankenstein hybrids. The pack of communicative man-beasts, led by the creature known as Sayer of the Law (Basehart), are too pretty and cuddly to truly sway the argument against meddling with the codes of life. Some may rebel, true, but that is also true of humanity – where are the abhorrent freaks and hideously deformed trial runs which would reinforce the abortion of such practise? What we see here are minor variations on designs from The Planet of the Apes – and Charlton Heston snogged one of those!

I was left with the lamentable impression that while H. G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau with a grand philosophical message to impart to his audience – a message both capturing the zeitgeist of the technologically-naive-yet-scientifically-curious late nineteenth century and concurrently timeless due to its intrinsic interrogation of what makes a man – this 1977 film was made simply because the filmmakers thought it would look totally wizard to have actors don animal masks post-Apes and not because they had an interesting argument to supplant or support Wells' wise words.

In a CR@B Shell: A shallow and toothless splicing of a revolutionary concept watered down by a lack of passion for the argument, The Island of Dr Moreau 1977 is watchable enough fantasy fare (and it certainly isn't the most despised of the novel's adaptations), but “middling” still doesn't do justice to such a powerful and prototypic prose parable.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Laugh it up, Goofball

15 – 54mins – 2010
Created by: Seth Green and Matthew Senreich
Head writers: Douglas Goldstein and Tom Root
Directed by: Chris McKay
Starring the voice talents of: Seth MacFarlane, Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Ahmed Best, Donald Faison, Abraham Benrubi, Rachel Leigh Cook, Tom Kane, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Zeb Wells, Keith Ferguson, Donald Glover, Mike Henry Matthew Senreich, Dan Milano


It's a bunch of over-grown kids goofing around with action figures, so you know not to expect high-brow philosophical or existentialist musings from this third roast of all things Star Wars. Even so, Adult Swim's Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III still fails to live up to the duo of uproarious-yet-affectionate Emmy-award-winning piss-takes which came before it. A shame it is, as Yoda would say, looking forward to this I was; but to be expected, perhaps, hmmm?

Maybe it is a case of diminished returns? After all, no matter how great a fan of George Lucas' iconic space saga I happen to be, even I have to question how many times can someone spoof the same six films and still be fresh? Family Guy (creator of which, Seth MacFarlane, is instantly recognisable on vocal duties here as Emperor Palpatine) has all-too-recently lapooned the same target for the same demographic with their adult-aimed trilogy, and they are by no means the first in the 35 years since A New Hope began one of – if not the – most successful and beloved motion picture series of all time (Spaceballs, anyone?).

RC co-creator Seth “Oz from Buffy” Green openly admits in a talking head on just one of this disc's impressively plentiful special features that the writing team had already “thrown everything they had at the screen” for 2007's Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode I, and while the Bounty Hunter-centric sequel was an equally humorous extension to the sandbox juvenility, perhaps Episode III was one follow-up too far (particularly as it is a bumper hour long edition – a far cry from the usual RC length of 11minutes, and the previous SW specials at 21)?

Too many of the sketches feel overlong; favourite characters (such as MacFarlane's wacky “Palpy” and Donald “Turk from Scrubs” Faison's everyman Gary the Stormtrooper) are recycled to death while other more obvious targets (Jar Jar, C3PO, little Ani, the Ewoks) are sidelined to little more than cameos. Yes, admittedly, it would be far too easy to bully the weak, but when Ahmed Best and Anthony Daniels gamely return to voice their career-shaping roles and the boy-who-will-be-Vader is brought to life by none other than Zac Efron, then you can't help but feel like they are somewhat wasted with no more than a couple of lines apiece.

Fun is still to be had: fanboys will find a bounty of intricate detail to delight in (for all their shots at the saga, the RC-ers are massive fans paying a skewered tribute to the films that inspire them), while giraffe-necked Jedi Yarael Poof (Zeb Wells) and elephantine musician Max Rebo (Hugh Davidson) are characterised hysterically as a Woody Allen-alike cynic and resolute jazz cliché respectively. Futhermore, the voice cast is mightily impressive: beyond the names prior stated, Breckin Road Trip Meyer plays Boba Fett as an arrogant wise-ass, Lando Calrissian himself (Billy Dee Williams) is back with his tongue firmly in cheek and Tom Kane (of The Clone Wars fame) reprises his dual role of Yoda/Narrator.

Back to the host of extra features (the entire runtime exceeds 230minutes!), and an informal meeting with the main man at Skywalker Ranch highlights the auteur's acute awareness and sense of humour, while half an hour of deleted scenes and animatics reveal that some of the jokes left out (Porkins! Boss Nass!) are stronger than what was retained. But informal is definitely the name of the game here, as the amateurish feel stretches beyond the show itself and reveals the team to literally be a bunch of young guys with a love for toys and science fiction playing around in a big warehouse. Surprisingly, this lo-fi release was DVD only(!).

In a CR@B Shell: Don't let the crude stop-motion animation fool you – a whole heap of time, effort, love, thought and passion has gone in to crafting Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III; it's just a shame that the parodies are beginning to wear a little thin after three increasingly longer specials. The farce is still with this one, it's just not as strong as it once was.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Child's Play

18 – 94mins – 2010
Directed by: Jeff Tremaine
Starring: Johnnie Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Wee Man, Preston Lacy, Chris Pontius, Ehren McGhehey, Dave England, Loomis Fall

Over a decade on from their controversial but much-loved MTV debut (and, if I’m completely candid, about 5 years since I thought anyone still gave a hoot), this is the third big screen outing for brave/stupid thrill-seeking pranksters Johnnie Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O et al – many of whom are now nearing the big 4-0 (that’s physical age, not mental). How much longer can they keep doing this to themselves?!

What more can really be said about Jackass? As much as the rear of this DVD can label this “their wildest round of mischief and mayhem yet”, it’s really just more of the same (and even more still with the director’s cut): more juvenile japes, more irresponsibly life-threatening feats of peril, more explicitly tasteless buffoonery and more frankly disgusting tests of endurance. Oh, accept this feature was shown in 3D at the cinema – a gimmick I can’t imagine added anything to the lo-fi shenanigans.

It’s hard to pick out a “favourite” skit (they’re all recklessly daft), but the most foul and indecent have a strange car crash curiosity about them: even the threat of throwing up can’t tear you away from watching Steve-O propelled into the air in a porta-potty loaded with dog shit, or drink a beaker of sweat collected from the less-than-trim Preston Lacy’s cellophane exercise wrap. *Heave*

Do I think they’re all insane? Yes, without doubt. Would I attempt any of the crackpot lunacy at home? Not if you paid me. But, most importantly, is it entertaining? Well… yes, you got me! I concede I did often snort with amusement despite myself – but by now you know what you’re letting yourself in for and you know if you’ll be entertained or repulsed by this unrelenting montage of madness.

It’s a peculiar experience to watch something so inexorably frolicsome in the wake of Ryan Dunn’s tragic death – but it’s also remarkable that it wasn’t the show that killed him. The amount of bodily abuse these men accept in the name of Jackass is torturous to the point of masochistic – although I did note that Wee Man’s participation was kept to a bear minimum. Maybe he’s finally growing up? Oh, no, wait: that's him being super glued in the “69” position to Lacey's bare stomach... Forget I said anything.

In a CR@B Shell: Very much a marmite movie which you’ll either worship or despise, hence why I’ve remained impartial and gone straight down the middle in my rating of Jackass 3D. Watch if you’ve got the stomach for it, if not stay well away. You have been warned.

Cod Melville

12 – 91mins – 2011
Story by: Gil Aglaure and Anne Black
Based on the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
Screenplay by: McKay Daines
Directed by: Ryan Little
Starring: Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Corey Sevier, Sofia Pernas, Larry Bagby, Kepa Kruse, David Morgan


Like Easy A, Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You before it, Age of the Dragons is a contemporary filmic reimagining of a classic prose tale which bears little discernible resemblance to its long-treasured source. Unlike Easy A, Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, however, Age of the Dragons is a spiritless and complaisant slog which, beneath its medieval exterior, is far too tied to Herman Melville’s Great American Novel, much to its own detriment.

Taking the skeletal essence of Moby Dick and burying it in an archaic fantasy land where dragons, not whales, are the burdensome beasts hunted and harpooned for their highly sought-after natural resource (the fiery neon catalyst vitriol, in this case, rather than blubber), Ryan Little’s low budget genre piece tells the story of Captain Ahab’s (Glover) vengeance-motivated lifelong hunt for the great white dragon which killed his sister and left him a mentally and physically scarred husk of man.

Told, like the novel, from the perspective of dashing-but-wholly-uninteresting wanderer Ishmael (Sevier), Age of the Dragons fails to make the most of its mystical snow-steeped vistas and limitless fantasy palette, delivering a flat, grey and emotionless story which lacks vigour and imagination. Despite a limited budget, the CGI – when employed – is passable if economical at rendering the winged prey, but it is the humans which let this direct-to-video release down.

The acting fluctuates from corny over enthusiasm (Glover's garishly unstable cap'n; a bubbly but criminally underused Jones) to monotone amateur disinterest (pretty much everyone else). It's a shame the film's tone sticks much closer to the latter than the former, feeling almost completely soulless and lacking any humour to complement its fantastical frivolity. For anyone who thought Season of the Witch was bad (which I didn't – see my review HERE); that looks like an Oscar winning masterpiece next to this second rate tosh.

If Ishmael's insipid flirtation with Ahab's adopted daughter, Rachel (Pernas), wasn't bland enough, his enigmatic right-hand man, Queequay (Kruse), is a constant impenetrable aggravation, too. Clearly superfluous to this cut-price adap, he morphs from being a mute mystery in the first half to a mystical guru who won't shut up with his vapid stoner “logic” in the second. Furthermore, his reasons for steering clear of the grand cavern showdown are weak to the point of contrivance and the film would have benefited greatly from having Vinnie Jones' banterful Stubb's hang around to the end in place of this soporific bore.

But most irksome of all is story drafter's Aglaure and Black's uninspired translation of Ahab’s whaleship, the Pequod, which here becomes a cumbersome earth-bound craft comparable to a primitive Dead Reckoning in Land of the Dead, rolling through the tundra protected (scarcely) by a row of decorative shields nailed to its rickety wooden exterior. Quite how it was powered in an pre-technological society, though, I'm thoroughly stumped. It feels like a lazy fix (indeed one of many in the film) to allow this dragon hunting caravan of landlubbers to travel together yet still use shipping terminology such as “deck” and “vessel”.

In a CR@B Shell: Anything but a whale of a time, Age of the Dragons is a disengaging and hollow experience despite its treasured source and vivid landscape. A lazy, tedious and clichéd beast, the film is as awkward and clunky as its title (surely “The Age of Dragons” or simply “Age of Dragons” would have been more pithy?), and it can't even blame its low budget on its multitude of flaws.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Kable the Criminal Slayer

18 – 91mins – 2009
Written by: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Directed by: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Amber Valletta, Logan Lerman, Terry Crews, Ludacris, Kyra Sedgewick, John Leguizamo, Zoe Bell, Aaron Yoo, Mimi Michaels, Milo Ventimiglia, Ramsey Moore


Noisome, bombastic, lurid and frenetically hyperactive; Gamer is a viewing experience not dissimilar to the Wachowski brother’s vomit-inducing Speed Racer – albeit for an older (if not necessarily more mature) audience. It’s unsurprising, really, given that this “ironic” statement on our technologically-obsessed society was hatched from the restless minds of the writing/directing team behind the chaotic Crank films. But for all its intent, Gamer is just too explicit and busy to be taken seriously.

In the near future, an ultra-violent multiplayer videogame called “Slayers” created by eccentric genius Ken Castle (Dexter’s Hall) has taken the world by storm. Gamers play as soldiers battling it out in bloody conflict to the death. But what makes “Slayers” revolutionary is that the soldiers are not pixels but real people (death row inmates to be precise) who are controlled and actually killed by the actions and mistakes of the gamers playing safe in their homes.

Gerard Butler plays John “Kable” Tillman, one such condemned avatar whose success at “Slayers” has made him a global superstar. He is but three games away from being the first I-con to be granted his freedom, but when a renegade hacker group called Humanz led by Brother (Fast Five’s Ludacris) grants Kable’s controller, 17 year old console whiz Simon Silverton (Lerman), an upgrade which allows player and avatar to communicate, Kable persuades Simon to relieve him of his control and let him have his body back.

Free to roam and think independently, Kable breaks out of the deadly arena in the hope of tracking down his wife Nika (Valletta) – an avatar on a debauched Sims-like pseudo-community game called “Society” – and his daughter, in the process learning that there is more to Ken Castle’s maniacal plans for his mind-control technology than simply life-like videogames…

A dizzying amalgamation of concepts explored far more effectively in such sci-fi classics as The Matrix, Avatar, Death Race and Battle Royale, Gamer masks its triteness in an unremitting torrent of tasteless frivolity. Par exemple: a nauseatingly obese permanently shirtless male gamer called Gorge (Moore) plays – for perverse reasons all his own – as Nika, dressing her like a whore and making her spank herself and crawl on all fours in front of a player rather unsubtly called Rick Rape (Heroes’ Ventimiglia). Classy (!).

Compounding the sophistication (ahem), the agitated narrative jumps all over the place almost as rapidly as the camera swoops and spins like a kid with ADHD, so you’re constantly playing catch-up and questioning where you are, whose mind you’re in and whether what you’re seeing is reality, game play, flashback or video feed. One thing is for certain, though: Gamer is embarrassing lowbrow twaddle which quickly grows tiresome – and Neveldine and Taylor can’t control your reaction.

In a CR@B Shell: Disordered, frenzied and unsubtle to the point of vulgarity, Gamer is an exasperating mishmash of quality (if hackneyed) genre concepts lost beneath a visual assault of gaudy, offensive, multi-coloured madness. Gamer over.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Victory Loves Preparation

15 – 88mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino
Based on the 1972 film written by: Lewis John Carlino
Directed by: Simon West
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden, James Logan, John McConnell


[SPOILERS] A conventional and unspectacular remake of a 70s action-thriller from the Death Wish duo of Charles Bronson and director Michael “Calm down, dear” Winner, The Mechanic 2011 is exactly what you expect from a film headlined by the star of The Transporter; its taut runtime exploding with a salvo of hit men, guns, cars, babes, fist fights and stunts – played out by a bunch of cold-hearted thugs who would sooner strike you than strike up a conversion.

Statham plays the eponymous Arthur Bishop, for whom connivance and compassion are foreign concepts. He’s an elite gun-for-hire who “fixes” his clients’ problems by making wanted men’s deaths look like accidents. However, the assassin starts to develop a conscience when his next target is his mentor and only friend, Harry McKenna (Sutherland), whose wayward son Steve (Foster) Arthur decides to take under his wing and teach the tricks of his undercover trade.

Foster – who very much reminded me of Ryan Half Nelson Gosling – does a convincing turn as the hot-headed and impulsive waster for whom Arthur has a remarkable amount of patience. Arthur is tied by a sense of duty to his deceased comrade (which, of course, contradicts the fact it was him who pulled the trigger), but Steve really pushes his luck with his mutinous antics in lethal scenarios. You really do wonder why a pro of Arthur’s calibre would risk his reputation by leaving his assignments in the hands of an undependable student.

Considering the clean and delicate nature of their shady business (most of which involves being an invisible-but-deadly presence), the climactic manhunt for the Mechanic’s corrupt Agency chief Dean (Goldwyn) is a surprisingly ostentatious carnival of violence and destruction – on the streets of New Orleans in the middle of the day! Clearly all composure and cunning fly out the window (and abseil down a skyscraper) when you discover your boss is a dangerous double-crossing deviant. Dishonesty? In their line of work? Who would have thunk it?!

But any hope that working together to eliminate a common target would unify our pair of trigger-happy protagonists is but a pipe dream in the viewer’s imagination, as Steve learns the truth about Arthur’s role in his father’s murder and sets out to avenge his death. Three explosions but zero character development (in fact, if anything, Arthur regresses to a new immoral low) see this run-of-the-mill thriller go out with a visual bang – but a severe lack of substance means the adrenaline soon fades, alongside any memory of The Mechanic.

In a CR@B Shell: Playing a minor variation on his renowned underworld delivery driver, Statham was a predictable choice for the lead – and this is The Mechanic’s biggest glitch: it’s too content playing to type that it fails to evolve or astonish. Simon West’s remake is loud, watchable but ultimately forgettable post-pub pap.