Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Fright Fest

Three reviews. Three horrors. Three diverse subject matters. Three distinct levels of quality. Feel “three” to read on, terror enthusiasts…

18 – 88mins – 2004

Lazily borrowing the title from Mary Shelley's vintage gothic novel, you'd be forgiven for thinking this 2004 telefilm is a modern day remake. In actuality it's a quasi-sequel, catching up with the eponymous monster-maker and his iconic creation some 200 years after the original story. And yes, both doctor and monster are still alive, with the mad genius's controversial experiments leading to evolutionary advances in human sustainability – which Dr. Victor Frank- sorry: Helios (as he has now taken to calling himself) has successfully tested on himself.

“The Monster” (Vincent Perez) may well be Helios's (Thomas Kretschmann) first foray into human resurrection, but in the intervening centuries many more patchwork people have been reawakened in the doctor's mission to create the perfect living organism – including Helios's own wife (Ivana Milicevic) and, worryingly, a mad man who is butchering his way through New Orleans. You see, Helios's creations want to die – but they can't kill themselves, so one rogue “monster” is setting himself up to be caught.

Enter Detectives Carson (Parker Posey) and Sloane (Adam Goldberg) who are aided by a mysterious third party (I'll give you a clue: “I'm not the monster anymore – I'm your best hope”) in tracking down the organ stealing serial killer. From Conan 2011 director Marcus Nispel I was expecting much better than this low budget trash, which mistakes gothic for “no lighting” and paints even the daytime scenes in a grimy blue/green hue. In addition, the camera refuses to take a step back from the characters, making the whole endeavour feel claustrophobic rather than atmospheric.

Conceptualised by horror writer Dean Koontz with a view to expanding this pilot into a TV series (which goes a long way to explaining the painful lack of closure), creative differences saw Koontz depart and go on to make his vision into a very popular series of novels. The Frankenstein he left behind is, unsurprisingly, a misfiring mess: scenes feel rushed, the editing often feels like it's worked around ad breaks, minor characters (such as Carson's autistic son) are introduced then wasted, while the whole project feels half-baked and unfinished (at no point do Helios and his creation/the police cross paths). This monster is anything but alive.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

15 – 102mins – 2011

Zombies? Love ‘em. Vampires? No sweat. Creature Features? Piece of cake. Yet when it comes to ghosts I turn into an absolutely nervous sissy. What? Don’t judge me; we all have our weaknesses! Even before pressing play, I was already freaked out by Insidious’ atmospheric montage menu sequence – yet still I persevered through Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s spine-chilling phantom fest; and I only needed three changes of pants!! I deserve a medal (or a pack of Huggies!).

Moving into a new house, a young family’s lives are turned upside-down when their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into an unfathomable coma. With doctors utterly perplexed, after three months the unresponsive lad is moved back home, but a number of ghostly visitations, bumps in the nights and whispers on the baby monitor lead terrified mother Renai (Rose Byrne) to persuade her sceptical husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) to relocate once more. Problem is: the supernatural entities follow them, because it isn’t the house that’s haunted.

A second half curveball where, out of sheer desperation, Renai hires a team of low-tech paranormal oddballs (Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and multi-talented scribe Whannell) to rid them of spectral intrusion, moves the film away from its low-key haunted house concept and into full-scale demonic parasite invasion, via Ghostbusters-esque light comic relief. It’s a bit of a tone change, but no less jumpy, and the dread continues to mount in this tense and truly terrifying vision.

Much like the equally freaky Paranormal Activity (the creator of which, Oren Peli, is producer on this gig) I can assuredly say I will never watch Insidious again – and that’s the highest praise I can pay it.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

Film Review: PRIMAL
18 – 80mins – 2010

Six hopelessly ill-equipped university pals travel deep into the remote Australian outback to document long lost 12,000year-old rock paintings for their anthropology thesis. But, as is the convention with these genre B-movies, what starts out as a fun and exotic off-road expedition into the unknown soon spirals into disaster as one of their number contracts a mystifying fever which sees her hallucinate wildly as all her teeth fall out. Someone didn’t have their jabs!

Before long, the formerly flirtatious Mel (Krew Boylan) has grown a nasty set of animalistic gnashers, taken to communicating in primitive grunts and eating a wholly raw meat diet. Now her friends must decide whether to kill or be killed as they are hunted down in a ferociously primeval fashion. Slick production, a mounting sense of desperation and delightfully visceral cannibalistic carnage provide Primal with a superior edge over other similarly small-budgeted direct-to-DVD shockers.

Unfortunately, director Josh Reed’s vivid feature length debut stutters as it attempts to give reason to the madness (something about a giant horny cave-dwelling slug making the Neanderthals into its slaves to bring it fresh flesh to chow down on and women to impregnate) and an early stab at tying the events in with lead character Anja’s (Zoe Tuckwell-Smith) descendents is disregarded almost as soon as it is brought up. Should have stuck to the fiendishly entertaining stalk n’ strike scenario.

CR@B Verdict: aaaaa

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Escape to Insanity

12 – 110mins – 2011
Story by: Zack Snyder
Screenplay by: Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn, Gerard Plunkett, Jon Hamm


A quick scout online informs me that a “sucker punch” is a blow made when not expected. While the utilization of the phrase as the title of Zack Snyder’s latest overblown CGI-fest is never outright clarified during its duration, it’s clear to me, at least, that the “blow” that was delivered when not expected was the fact that the much-hyped blockbuster just isn’t very good. Either that or we’re all suckers for watching it and deserved to be punched for putting up with such nonsense? I’ll stick with the former.

Not only was I not a fan of Snyder’s previous effort Watchmen, I was also well aware of the avalanche of less than complimentary reviews levelled at his latest high concept fantasy flick. Nevertheless, it looked spectacular and I was curious to check it out, so I went in with an open mind, up for a thoroughly fun (if brainless) popcorn bonanza. Part of me really wanted to be the one positive voice amongst the throng of critical haters. Alas, it hurts me to say – especially about a film so beautifully, flawlessly and painstakingly rendered – that I can’t: Sucker Punch just sucks.

Institutionalised by her sexually abusive stepfather (Plunkett) after a self-defensive retort goes awry, 20year-old Babydoll (Browning) retreats into a dream world that she has control over to get herself through her gruelling tenure. Determined to escape before corrupt asylum orderly Blue (Isaac) can have her lobotomized illegally (and thus unable to report her stepfather's wrongdoing), Babyboll sets out to obtain five items – a map, a key, a lighter, a knife and a mysterious fifth – integral to an escape attempt.

Envisioning the asylum as a seedy brothel in which Blue is the mobster who runs the joint, the group therapist (Gugino) is a dance instructor and the other patients/inmates – Rocket (Malone), Sweet Pea (Cornish), Blondie (Beastly’s Hudgens) and Amber (Chung) – are exploited dancers, Babydoll must corral the other girls into joining her cause and obtaining the necessary objects whilst the staff are paralysed in awe; drooling. Simples, right?

Her distraction technique is an erotic dance during the performance of which Babydoll retreats even further into her subconscious by imagining grandiose battles in which the girls take on oversized supernatural samarais, steampunk zombie soldiers, orcs, dragons and an army of robot warriors aboard a speeding train in their fight to obtain the keys to aid their breakout. Babydoll is motivated throughout these mindbending fantasies by a mysterious Wise Man (Glenn) who, unlike the other men in her life, has her best interests at heart.

So what we have here is a turgid dream-within-a-dream scenario which plays like a very pretty video game adaptation; all style, gorgeous graphics and not a lot else. You quickly come to realise that there is a dreadfully rigid template to Sucker Punch's “gameplay”: Beat the baddie, complete the level, earn the token and move on to the next stage – but the prize at the end is so shockingly depressing that it makes you question whether escape was actually worth it, and whether “winning” is actually the correct term to use.

Beneath the gloss, Snyder’s hyperactive jumble of a vision not only downplays the appalling brutality of Babydoll’s misery but just utterly confuses. For starters, who the hell is Wise Man? He isn’t a character in the asylum, so does he really exist or is he – as his name suggests – some kind of omniscient guardian angel providing Babydoll with an internalised mentor? Far from providing clarity, his final appearance muddies the conundrum even further by bringing him into the real world – yet still exuding the same all-knowing, ever-helpful attitude.

Furthermore, while there is a clear pan-away to the fantasy battles (the dazzlingly perceptible change in exotic locale also helps), there is little indication of when the Lennox Mental Asylum suddenly becomes a fictitious brothel. Blur the lines between fantasy and reality, by all means, but I questioned if I’d accidentally sat on the remote and skipped a scene, so I can only wonder how long it took some less perceptive viewers to realise we weren’t still in the asylum, especially as all the characters are the same!

Most disconcerting of all – don’t worry, my rant is nearly at an end – is exactly why an abused young girl would ever feel “safe” in such a sordid scenario where she must wear scantily clad attire and use her body to thrill sleazy men? It just doesn't make sense! Is this supposed to be empowering? I think not. An ironic statement on men’s objectification of women? Hardly – it just comes off as misogynistic, especially as the extended blu-ray cut (available on retail copies only) purportedly re-inserts additional scenes of abuse and violence! Remind me to avoid that barrel of laughs, yeah?

In a CR@B Shell: Noisome, barmy and over-stylised to the point of offensively ostentatious; any poignant message Zack Snyder was attempting to convey was definitely lost beneath the excessive SFX. Even forgoing any emotional depth, Sucker Punch is still a cluttered and confusing mess of a popcorn flick. “Sucky Punch” more like.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Indiana Jane

12 – 107mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Luc Besson
Based on “Adèle and the Beast” and “Mummies on Parade” by: Jacques Tardi
Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Louise Bourgoin, Gilles Lellouche, Jacky Nercessian, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Paul Rouve, Mathieu Amalric, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Nicolas Giraud


Amalgamating the primary storylines from two issues (and extrapolating various elements from many more) of Jacques Tardi's popular 70's comic strip of the same name, this Luc The Fifth Element Besson passion project is a colourful, audacious and frequently humorous Tomb Raider 1910-style romp which breezes through many a high concept, high energy adventure with assertiveness, flair and a charming dollop of je ne sais quoi.

Amongst the rip-roaring fantasy highlights: a doddering professor (Nercessian) mind-melds with a pterodactyl belatedly hatched from its museum-displayed egg and now free to fly the early 20th century Parisian streets. Meanwhile, our eponymous travel writer and part-time master of disguise (Bourgoin; effervescent) narrowly escapes mummification and incineration while exploring the tomb of Ramesses II, before returning home and resurrecting the long-dead Pharaoh and his well-mannered courtesans so that her bed-bound sister (Clermont-Tonnerre) may be cured of a hatpin-related tennis injury.

It sounds wild and effusive because it is exactly that, and yet Adèle Blanc-Sec exudes a quirky, romantic charm akin to that other language-barrier-crossing kooky French comedy Amelie – not least because it begins with an eccentric voice over introduction. Importantly, whilst never taking itself seriously, Besson's script never lapses into cheap, juvenile spoofery (like The latter Mummy films had a tendency to do; there are no yetis celebrating field goals here!), instead having fun playing with – and subverting – the outlandish fantasy/adventure genre's concepts.

The Extraordinary Adventures... really is a comic book come to life; a live action cartoon if you will, and while the pairing of two largely unrelated adventures does lead to a *slight* lapse in action as the film reaches the final third (exotic Egyptian escapades and pterodactyl panic are replaced by the smaller scale resurrection storyline), the idiosyncratic humour, amiability and unpredictability factor keep you hooked to the very end.

In a CR@B Shell: Don't you dare let the subtitles discourage you from checking out this blindingly bold and universally appealing joy. Besson has his sights set on a trilogy, and with plenty of source material at his disposal, I can't wait to see where he takes Adèle Blanc-Sec next. Highly recommended.

Gh05tf4c3 K1ll3r

Blu Review: SCRE4M
15 – 110mins – 2011
Written by: Kevin Williamson
Based on characters created by: Kevin Williamson
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtey Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, Erik Knudson, Mary McDonnell, Mary Shelton, Nico Tortorella, and the voice of Roger Jackson


“What's your favourite scary movie?”
Jigsaw has his macabre creativity for death traps, Leatherface has his chainsaw and Freddy Kreuger has supernatural access into his victims’ subconscious. In comparison, Ghostface’s prank n’ stab routine doesn’t sound *quite* so inventive, but Kevin Williamson’s mask-wearing creation has another ace up its baggy serial-killing sleeve: a dynamite knowledge of horror film conventions and a depraved penchant for subverting the “rules” as it slices its way through murder hotspot Woodsboro. (Note I'm saying “it” to avoid any spoilers, not because I'm ill-mannered!)

“New decade. New rules.”
So promises the tagline for series reviver Scre4m (that's Scream 4 to the easily confused), but I wouldn’t go quite that far – it’s more a case of the same rules warped out of predictability for a new generation of more clued-up, iPhone savvy victims (at one point Ghostface must reiterate over the phone: “I'm not an app”). Nevertheless, there’s still much fun to be had in determining just who has donned the ghoulish mask eleven years after trouble magnets Sidney Prescott (Campbell), Sherriff Dewey (Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Cox) last survived a grisly slashing.

“One generation's tragedy is the next one's joke.”
It was good to see the trio of series regulars return (even if none of them have exactly been hot property since Scream 3), meanwhile we are also introduced to a hip new cast of up-and-coming-faces (Roberts, Panettiere, Culkin) who have grown up with their only knowledge of the horrific local events coming in the form of in-universe horror franchise “Stab” (now on instalment number seven – some sagas just don’t know when to stop!), based upon journalist Gale’s bestselling book. Now they have to apply their knowledge of the movies to stay alive for real.

“This isn't a comedy, it's a horror film. People live, people die and you'd
better start running.”
The in-jokes are slick, smart and hilarious (“Saw 5? I’m so over it - the same thing happens every time!”), with supporting roles and cameos granted to a number of “look who it is!” contemporary stars (Brody, Anderson, Brie, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell). It’s just a pity that – after his previous effort, the inexcusably dire My Soul to Take, bombed – returning director Wes Craven’s otherwise solid latest entry is ultimately let down by a weak ending with quite possibly the poorest reason for somebody to slaughter their family and friends I have ever heard.

In a CR@B Shell: Something of a return to form for the post-modern slasher series after 2000's less-than-loved trilogy closer, but I'm not quite sure how much more mileage there is in this self-aware, reference-heavy concept – yet there's talk of Scre4m kick-starting a whole new trilogy. Some sagas just don't know when to stop!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Sliders: The Next Generation

Written by: Alex Scarrow
Published by: Puffin Books
Released: February 2010


[SPOILERS] Three teenagers from three disparate periods of time – one from the past, one from the present day and one from the near-future – are plucked from their plains of existence in the moments before their untimely deaths and recruited by a shadow agency to become TimeRiders; “fixers” of broken history, if you will, who right the wrongs that less well-meaning time travellers from the future disrupt for their own avaricious and diabolical gain.

In this opening volume in a proposed nine novel arc from thriller writer (and Norwich resident) Alex Scarrow, Titanic deckhand Liam O’Connor, techno-nut Maddy Carter and fire victim Sal Vikram must adjust to their new raison d'être; before being thrown in at the deep-end pre-completion of their training when desirous physicist Paul Krammer travels back from the 206o's to dethrone Adolf Hitler and see Nazi Germany to victory over the Allied Forces who, in our correct time line (as you all should know) did win the war.

It is up to appointed “field agent” Liam – accompanied by an AI “meat robot” christened Bob (think Arnie in Terminator, only on the good guys' team) – to travel back to the source of the blip and erase Krammer's threat, or face living in a world which was never meant to be; a shell of a world brought to the very brink of destruction after the ripples of the butterfly effect see power – and paranoia – go to Herr Krammer's head; with catastrophic results...

For Scarrow to rely upon the Second World War for his first historical destination screamed to me of lazy cliché (much like the JFK assassination – which, surprise, surprise, the author exploits as well – it's been done to death), but my opinion mellowed when I considered that it was probably wise to ease his young adult readership into his newborn vision via a period today's teenagers would relate to having learnt so much about it at school. Whether it's tasteful to play around with such horrendous true events is another matter entirely. Which brings me conveniently onto my most major qualm with this work...

Living outside the realms of reality, the TimeRiders exist undisturbed in a continually resetting 48hour “time bubble” located in a disused warehouse in New York City on – wait for it – the 10th and 11th of September 2001. Yep, you read that correctly. Am I wrong to think that less than a decade on it's a mite insensitive to use 9/11 as a plot-point in a sci-fi fantasy? Scarrow's reasoning is that in this period of almighty tragedy for the modern world, everybody will be too otherwise concerned to notice three teens and their trainer wandering the streets looking for ripples in the fabric of space/time. But still...

Questionable moral decision aside, TimeRiders is otherwise a fairly entertaining read (if not quite as “mindblowing” as the cover blurb promised). Scarrow may not rewrite the rules on time travel here, but he has clearly done his research, and he has fun with some quite horrific alternate visions of our world. The revised 2001 which Maddy, Sal and agency headhunter Foster find themselves trapped in following Krammer's “amendments” was a shockingly graphic apocalyptic nightmare, and Scarrow often doesn't hold back in his gory descriptions; clearly a beneficial hold-over from his adult thriller works.

In a CR@B Shell: With the entirety of history at his fingertips, Alex Scarrow's all-too predictable primary destination bordered on self-destructive, but it soon opened up a more exhilarating and engrossingly ghastly bag of worms for the sub-team of teen heroes – and knowing where (and when) book two takes them, I'm prepared to stick around for a another trip with the charismatic TimeRiders.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Embrace the Suck

Blu Review: BEASTLY
12 – 87mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Daniel Barnz
Based on the novel by: Alex Fynn
Directed by: Daniel Barnz
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Alex Pettyfer, Mary Kate Olsen, Neil Patrick Harris, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Peter Krause, Dakota Johnson, Erik Knudson


An adaptation of a retelling of an animation of a classic tale, or – to put it simply – Beauty and the Beast Y2K. Loosely based on Alex Fynn's 2007 novel of the same name, Daniel Barnz's Beastly retains the immortal “beauty isn't skin deep” message – and recurring rose motif – from its renowned fairytale inspiration, but trades enchanted castles for modern day NYC, a sing-song soundtrack for Lady GaGa choons, fur and fangs for tattoos and scars, and peppers the whole affair in excruciating faddish slang such as “hatchet-face”, “a-holien”, “lame core” and “wonk”. Needless to say, this version won't still be enamoured by millions in years to come. But look out for it in the bargain bin in a couple of months.

“People like people who look good. Everyone who disagrees is either dumb or ugly.”
That's Kyle Kingson's (I Am Number Four's Pettyfer) mantra. Spoiled, shallow, spiteful, vain and arrogant, he's nevertheless “king” of Buckston Academy High School and always gets his way. Because his dad (Six Feet Under's Krause) is a rich and famous news anchor and Kyle is easy on the eye - but not for long.... After being humiliated by the rude jerk for the last time, gothic witch and fellow student Kendra (Olsen) casts a spell on Kyle which makes him as ugly on the outside as he is within. To break the curse, the freaky new-look Kyle must get a girl to love the beauty in the beast within one year, or look like a monster for the rest of his life.

That's not exactly the easiest ask when you “look like a victim in a slasher flick” and your equally superficial dad (like father, like son) pulls you out of school (“Rehab”) and hides you away from the world in an out-of-town prison– sorry, apartment, with only an ever-loyal maid (Hamilton) and a blind tutor (How I Met Your Mother's Harris) for company. Lonely, ashamed and depressed, Kyle sets his sights on former classmate Lindy (Sucker Punch's Hudgens), but he can't face confronting her for fear his aberrant appearance will scare her away.

On a self-pitying late night stroll through the city (hood up, face down), Kyle comes to the rescue when Lindy's addict father (LaFortune) is confronted by his debt collecting dealers. Unable to stop the troubled man from shooting one of the drug peddlers, Kyle blackmails him into agreeing to let his daughter stay in Kyle's secret hideaway to keep her veiled from the vengeful dealer who got away. But, of course, Kyle has another reason for wanting Lindy to be close to him, even if she isn't initially too happy about being sold to a "stranger".

The blossoming romance between beauty and the beast is sweet enough, if a little rushed (the seasons fly by with only leaves falling from the trees as an indication that time is passing), but Hudgens is too attractive for the role of Lindy, whose literary alter-ego has red hair and crooked teeth but is, you've guessed it, beautiful on the inside. Truth be told, Hudgens, is far cuter than Kyle's fair-weather ice queen girlfriend (Johnson), which contradicts the film's message and makes you wonder why he ignored her for so long before his transformation.

Deformed though he may be, Pettyfer isn't totally unrecognisable under his ink and prosthetics, yet we are meant to believe that even when Lindy sees “Hunter” (as Kyle takes to calling himself post-curse) she never questions his resemblance to the popular hunk from school who, coincidentally, has been absent for some months. It irks (akin to how nobody realises that Clark Kent without glasses is Superman), as does the insensitive way in which Lindy comes to stay in Kyle's apartment, but neither issue was as detrimental to my enjoyment as Beastly's continual attempts to be hip, happenin' and appealing to the teens of today. As I touched on above, the abbreviated lingo verges on incomprehensible at times (particularly in the first twenty or so minutes) while the contemporary soundtrack just feels shamelessly contrived and intrusive. Now that's lame core.

We all know the story, so we all know how Beastly ends: Happily ever after, of course, but the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release (due in the UK on August 29th) includes a rather lengthy alternative ending which sticks much closer to Fynn's novel. My initial reaction was that I preferred it to Barnz's re-written conclusion, however I soon realised that it over-complicated the plot by bringing back one too many elements from earlier in the film at a time when the story needed clarity, not confusion.

In a CR@B Shell: A timeless love story is buried beneath a trendy try-hard surface; how ironic for a film about looking beyond the surface. Unfortunately, unlike Lindy I just couldn't get beyond Beastly's aesthetic flaws, and despite warming to certain elements I ultimately didn't fall in love with Daniel Barnz's youth-targeted refurb. Call me shallow if you must – but please don't curse me!

High School Hideout

12 – 109mins – 2011
Screenplay by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Noxon
Based on the novel by: Pittacus Lore
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Argon, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner


[SPOILERS] Some books are just too friggin' complicated for the big screen treatment. Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan poked irreverent fun at the subject with A Cock and Bull Story, their metafictional take on Laurence Sterne's 18th century novel Tristam Shandy, while the mammoth The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King still required a gazillion endings and over 260minutes to wrap up J.R.R. Tolkein's concluding opus.

Pittacus Lore's 2010 young adult sci-fi fantasy novel – the first in a proposed six book series, no less – may not be in the same epic league as my above chosen examples, but it is extremely popular in today's heavily-diluted Y.A. market and the fight for the film rights ended in a bidding war for the must-have property. Having not read the source material (humorously promoted as "Twilight for boys"), there were times during director D.J. Disturbia Caruso's frenetic adap when I was seriously struggling to comprehend what the hell was going on!

Stormbreaker's Alex Pettyfer plays teen “John Smith”, an alien from the planet Lorian who, alongside eight other humanoid refugees, is in hiding on Earth from a gang of bounty hunting Mogadorians; the hideous tattooed extra terrestrials who destroyed Lorian and are now slaying the nine who escaped. In order. Maybe I missed why there must be an order to the deaths, but there is. Three have already been murder. “John”, as the title implies, is Number Four.

Accompanied by his tech-savvy guardian, Henri (The Crazies' Olyphant), “John” is forced to leave his Florida beach house and relocate to the sleepy Ohio town of Paradise, where he poses as a high school student and – despite Henri's instructions to stay lowkey and not attract any attention which may betray their location to the “Mogs” – “John” befriends gawky conspiracy theorist Sam (McAuliffe), falls in love with sweet-natured photographer Sarah (Argon) and fends off block-headed bully cliché Mark (Abel).

Meanwhile, a lizard morphs into a dog whom “John” adopts, Henri hides an alien relic in their grandfather clock, a mysterious blonde (Palmer) is on “John's” heels blowing everything up, the “Mogs” continue their hunt whilst shopping for enough food to feed the *something* they have contained in the back of a truck, oh, and “John” learns he has all manner of superpowers (known as “legacies”, because what we needed was more jargon) – such as extreme strength, agility and telekinesis – which he struggles to keep under wraps because light keeps shining from his hands.

The more sedate character-building scenes set at the school are amiable enough, mainly because Argon is cute, but the jock/bully subplot is as embarrassingly trite as Number Four using the timeworn pseudonym “John Smith”, while the way eager-beaver Sam is roped into the alien war is ridiculously complex and complicated (some tosh about his supposedly abducted father having worked out years ago that the Lorians had come to Earth).

When the “Mogs” – a dreadful abbreviation to a stupid mouthful of a word – eventually do track down Henri and Number Four (via yet another complex and complicated method of hoodwinking some online conspiracy nuts into luring the good guys to their house), producer Michael Transformers Bay's influence is clear as the CGI fireworks are set off in spectacularly busy fashion. “John's” dog morphs into a giant furry beast who fights off the winged creature let loose from the “Mogs'” truck, while “John”, Sam, Sarah and Palmer's mystery blonde (who reveals herself as the vengeful Number Six) run around the school trying not to be captured.

It's all just a bit of a headache, really, with a cavalcade of ideas which probably worked fairly well when interwoven into a 440page novel crammed into a confusing hour and forty-five minutes. It also niggled me how late it was left before Number Six revealed herself and the dog showed its monstrous true form; there are only so many teasing cutaways I can take before I want the plot to progress. I'm sure their was a reason for everything, but a lot of the action just came off as senseless (the prologue, in particular was too dark to discern anything), while a number of plot holes (such as why the overprotective Henri didn't look for John when he didn't answer three of his phone calls) shone as brightly as “John's” hands.

In a CR@B Shell: I can't accuse it of being boring, but I just found too many faults with this hokey big screen blockbuster to be entertained by everything that was thrown our way. Bit of a shame, really, but if they ever put the sequel into production (money talks, after all) it may help to expand upon and smooth over I Am Number Four's disparaging plotholes.


Written by: Philip Reeve
Released in: 2003
Published by: Scholastic
316 pages


[SPOILERS] He may currently be shaggy beard-deep in Tintin and Hobbit shiz, but on the horizon Peter Jackson has an adaptation of the first book in Philip Reeve's bestselling Mortal Engines Quartet – that's the Hungry Cities Chronicles, as it is known in the US of A – in his bespectacled sight. This is the primary reason I sought out the introductory volume (Mortal Engines) last month; to get clued-up super early so I can pretend to know what the 'eck I'm talkin' bout when (or indeed if) the movie ever gets made.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where entire settlements have uprooted from the nuclear-ravaged land they once occupied and gained themselves a set of wheels in an attempt to out-run one another for fear that the larger city-sized colonies will devour the smaller towns and villages and strip them of their much sought-after materials, commodities – even inhabitants!

“A City-eat-city world?!” I can imagine newcomers questioning. “You're taking the piss, surely?”. It's certainly a high concept pill to swallow, and I will admit to being *slightly* dubious as I read Mortal Engine's opening page – but, trust me, it isn't as ludicrous as the synopsis makes it sound, and I enjoyed this first dip into the bustling, ever-expanding steampunk-esque future-verse.

That being said, I can't claim to being unequivocally bowled over by it. I liked it, yes, but I didn't consider it sublime, faultless or unputdownable literary perfection and I was stumped when it came to conjuring up enough words to write a decent sized CR@Blog review (hence why you've never seen one). Nevertheless I was still satisfied – and curious – enough to seek out part two in the series: Predator's Gold. I'm pleased to report I've got plenty of opinions to wheel your way this time around ('cos if I hadn't there'd be nothing here for you to read, duh!).

Commencing two years after the first entry ended in spectacularly world-altering fashion, Predator's Gold sees our everyboy protagonist, ex-apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy, and his facially-disfigured girlfriend, Hester Shaw, pick up a famous literary hitch-hiker in their “inherited” airship, the Jenny Haniver. Seeking refuge on the once-thriving “Traction City” of Anchorage, the trio are in equal parts excited and disquieted by the level of disrepute that has befallen this once proud mecca, left devastated after a plague wiped out most of their population and left the inexperienced teenage margravine Freya Rasmussen in charge.

Seeing the arrival of bestselling histo-adventure writer Professor Pennyroyal as a sign that Anchorage must make its way to the long-believed radioactive wasteland that was once America, Freya asks the author, Tom and Hester to be her guests on the fanciful journey to discover surviving pockets of civilisation and enduring fauna. But all too soon relationships prosper and sour as secrets are kept and lies are told, and Anchorage is unaware that the predator city of Arkangel has been enlightened to their course and is closing in, hungry for resources – and that isn't even their biggest threat...

If Mortal Engines fell marginally fowl of origin story drudgery, Predator's Gold was free to soar into bold new territory, and this is a mighty inventive and colourful world. With an expansive range of characters who encompass every class from orhpaned royals to, erm, orphaned pickpockets, Reeve revels in a cast of full-bodied, three-dimensional players. Tom may be brave beyond his years, but he is by no means the angelic innocent hero figure you may expect from a young adult novel. He questions those around him and is unreserved in his judgements – even stooping so low as to wish his unfortunately-disfigured girlfriend wasn't so ugly, while encouraging unfaithful thoughts towards plump, pretty Freya.

Hester, meanwhile, is a bitter and understandably unconfident soul who makes horrendous snap decisions which I couldn't help but scream in disbelief at – she's hardly a prototypical fairytale princess, rather a real person, and it's refreshing to see a role model sulk and make mistakes. Devious shadow burglar Caul, too, is a complicated and well-rounded individual – a thief with a heart! Conversely, Pennyroyal was, unfortunately, a far too predictable red herring of a yellow belly, reminding me from the very outset as a Gilderoy Lockhart-type fraud (he of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

Published by Scholastic but clearly aimed at a more mature teen audience than their usual school-age output, I was pleasantly surprised to see Predator's Gold push the boundaries – scarcely 17 years of age, Tom and Hester don't hide the fact that they are lovers who share a bed and enjoy drinking wine, while Reeve also gets a kick out of painting many a disturbing and unexpectedly violent picture. It's never unnecessary or offensively heinous, but it certainly packs a winding narrative punch.

In a CR@B Shell: A rolling stone may gather no moss, but a rolling city definitely gathers gloss. A step-up from an inspired but satisfactory origin story, steampunk action sequel Predator's Gold is an exhilarating, unpredictable and emotionally diverse adventure which left me eager to pick up part three.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Ape Alone Weak, Ape Together Strong

12A – 105mins – 2011
Written by: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Suggested by the novel by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett


[SPOILERS] I have been anticipating this film ever since it started production. The first trailer left me with goosebumps. This past fortnight I have been literally chimping at the bit for release day following a preparatory rewatch of all five of the original films in the franchise (Planet, Beneath, Escape, Conquest and Battle, click the links if you fancy checking out my saga review blitz) which has seen my impatience reach fever pitch and veer dangerously close to obsession.

After such personal hype, could remake/origin story Rise of the Planet of the Apes actually meet my ludicrously stratospheric expectations? After all, fans have been left disappointed by a twenty-first century reboot before, and in the grand scheme of things, Rupert Wyatt (best known for 2008's Brian Cox-starring The Escapist - yeah, me neither) is a comparative unknown for such a big project. Well, in the simplest terms possible: Yes, yes it could meet my expectations. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it surpassed them by some considerable distance. Welcome to the big league, Mr Wyatt.

Eschewing the already head-scratching and frequently-altered time travel set-up established in the earlier films (talking chimps Zira and Cornelius crash-landed on Earth in 1973 and by 1991 apes were being used as slaves before a game-changing revolt by offspring Caesar reduced New York to a radioactive wasteland), Rise sees present day neurologist Will Rodman (Franco) developing a cure to Alzheimer's by testing his experimental formulas on chimpanzee guinea pigs. Man messing with nature? Surely there's no harm in that...?

After a troublesome incident with test subject Bright Eyes, Will reluctantly saves her recently born son, christened Caesar (a motion-captured Serkis), from being put down. Smuggling him out of the lab, Caesar is raised at home alongside Will's Alzheimer-suffering father Charles (Lithgow). Over the course of the next eight years, Caesar – who has inherited his mother's genetically elevated level of intelligence, a beneficial acquirement gained from trial virus ALZ-112 – continues to advance above and beyond the capabilities of a "mere" primate.

But as Will's veterinarian girlfriend Caroline (Slumdog Millionaire's Pinto) warns, docile as Caesar may seem, chimps as a species are dangerous and unpredictable creatures who must be feared as much as loved. Advice worth heeding... Following a run-in with Will's dolt of a neighbour (Hewlett), Caesar is imprisoned in an ape sanctuary (read: borstal, replete with vindictive “warden” in the form of Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton's assistant), where our favourite knuckle-dragger begins to lose his faith in mankind's benevolence, and – in a plot with strong correlations to Conquest before it – he is in the perfect location to rally his simian brethren to his cause. I smell a mutiny – or is that wet fur and faeces?

Smart, funny, intelligent, emotional, tense and eye-poppingly gorgeous (I could keep going with the superlatives), Rise is so much more than an air-headed CGI-crammed schlockbuster. Wyatt's film hits all the right buttons in a tonally perfect script aided by stunning WETA-crafted special effects which often make you forget you aren't watching real chimps. A scene in which a lonely and dejected Caesar scrapes a chalk replica of Will's attic window on the wall of his cell brought a genuine lump to my throat, while I couldn't suppress my glee at the pivotal turning point in his escape bid; you sympathise with him, you will him on in his fight against the injustices thrown his way, and – rather disconcertingly – you want him to bring humanity to its knees. I'm such a terrible human!

Speaking of humanity, Rise's homo sapien cast is capably adept, even if they are reduced to playing second fiddle to the simians stars: Franco doesn't over-state his staunch determination in the lead role, while Lithgow evokes compassion as his mental state deteriorates and Felton's Dodge Landon (his name a direct reference to Taylor's astronaut buddies from the original) riles you up as the generic bully of the piece. Pinto is the only superfluous role, Caroline scarcely effecting the plot beyond her “love interest” stereotype. But that's a negligible quibble in a film which scarcely put a paw out of place.

A multitude of callbacks, references and in-jokes are a nice touch for fans to smirk at knowingly (well, I did at any rate), from Caesar playing with a model of the Statue of Liberty, to numerous character names, dialogue riffs and allusions that the Icarus mission into Space (that which first takes Taylor to the planet of the apes in 1968) is blasting off simultaneous to the events here. Sure it's all background padding, but such frills add depth and colour to this universe which expands my admiration for an already first rate motion picture experience.

A subplot involving Will's successive batch of the revolutionary serum, ALZ-113, and its disastrous after-effects to human health is expanded in a mid-credit tag which suggests we haven't seen the last of this perennial series which fails to be put down. I for one cannot wait to see what the future holds for our planet of the apes – provided Tim Burton keeps his paws off. Hail Caesar!

In a CR@B Shell: I couldn't have asked for a more rich, powerful and engrossing Rise for these damn quality apes; I'm going to have franchise withdrawal symptoms now that I've reached the end – maybe it's time to invest in the short-lived 70's TV series to placate my primate obsession!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Ready, Ape, Fire!

12 – 83mins – 1973
Story by: Paul Dehn
Screenplay by: Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington
Based on characters created by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Austin Stoker, Paul Williams, Severn Darden, Lew Ayres, Bobby Porter, France Nguyen, Noah Keen, Richard Eastham, John Huston


Generally, successful franchises which span multiple box office hits find that with each successive entry their budget inflates as technology becomes more advanced – not to mention cheaper to utilise – leading to glossier and more aesthetically pleasing (if not necessary better) final products. Battle for the Planet of the Apes – the fifth entry in the topsy-turvey sci-fi saga – does not follow this trend. A far smaller budget means a less stellar cast and compromises in special effects which, sadly, diminish the over-all effect of what would become the last theatrical release before the concept transferred to the small screen.

The most obvious drop in quality is the cheap-looking gorilla masks, highlighted all the more because bitter, human-hating military captain Aldo (Akins) has so much screen time as rival to ape “king” Caesar's (McDowall) crown. Battle picks up many years after the war which followed the simian revolt at Conquest's crucial cliffhanger climax. A nuclear detonation has reduced New York City to a skeletal wasteland with radioactive residue, leaving it uninhabitable (a nifty foreshadowing of the Forbidden Zone which Taylor and Brent found themselves lost in in the classic original and first sequel Beneath).

A smattering of the conquered humans – including brother to Conquest's chimp sympathiser, MacDonald (Stoker) and school teacher Abe (Keen) – are welcomed into the emerging Ape City to live (although not quite as equals, the cause of much consternation), while a reconnaissance mission by MacDonald, Caesar and orangutan wise-man Virgil (Williams) to gather recorded intel of Caesar's long-dead parents Zira and Cornelius (footage recycled from Escape) reveals a quarantined colony of mutated, radiation-poisoned human survivors living underground. As much as I couldn't abide the mutant sub-plot in Battle, further establishing the cult was a welcome attempt at rectifying a mistep.

Led by returning character Governer Kolp (Darden), the mutant dwellers see Caesar's trespassing in their colony as an act of war, and a ragtag force of gun-totting maniacs invade the divided ape community, leading to the eponymous battle – but how will the apes fair with Aldo caging-up the amiable humans and causing a rift in the ranks by injuring Caesar's child, Cornelius Jnr. (Porter), after the young ape overheard the gorilla's insidious plan to overthrow his passive leader? Will the apes stand united or fall divided?

The DVD cut I watched was, I have since discovered, severely edited. The US Blu-ray apparently rectifies this by using the definitive version, whereas the UK release, bizarrely, doesn't, instead including the additional footage as deleted scenes. At just 83mins, Battle is simply far too short (despite being the same length as its far superior predecessor) and its pacing does not help; whizzing by with very little of substance happening prior to the climatic fight. The first five minutes is wasted with overlong recaps of all previous entries, and a framing device confirming that the future is not set in stone features “The Great Lawgiver” (Huston), an oranutan who reads from the secret scrolls; clearly a desperate ploy to evoke comparison to the iconic Dr. Zaius.

In a CR@B Shell: Proffering a handful of neat touches which help both expand and knit together the centuries-spanning saga, alas Battle for the Planet of the Apes is far from the epic final bow such an iconic blockbuster series deserved. An admirable effort is ultimately let down by a lack of funds and an amateurish feel.

Monster Mystery Science Fiction Theatre 1979

Cine Review: SUPER 8
12A – 112mins – 2011
Written by: J. J. Abrams
Directed by: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills, Noah Emmerich, Ron Elard, Glynn Turman


In the (fictional) backwater town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, young amateur film-maker Charles (Griffiths) cajoles a group of his closest friends and classmates into starring in, and helping him execute, a George A. Romero-inspired zombie movie for inclusion in a local competition. Using the 8mm home movie format of the title, budding director Charles' crucial midnight train station scene is interrupted in disastrously spectacular fashion when a pick-up truck driven by their old Biology teacher (Turman) deliberately drives onto the tracks, derailing a passing military train right before their petrified eyes.

In the flaming aftermath, the crash site is littered with a plethora of curious white cubes, while the US Air Forces' swift attempts to shut down the area and keep the local community in the dark despite a growing number of mysterious phenomena only piques the groups' curiosity: just what was that train carrying – and where has it escaped to...?

A homage to the magic and wonder conjured up by the classic Steven Spielberg adventure films of yesteryear (E.T., Close Encounters, The Goonies – hence the retro setting), with an added injection of Lost mastermind Abrams' trademark head-scratching mystery and a fair dollop of CGI monster madness straight outta Cloverfield; Super 8 is – despite its amalgamated inspirations – a bold and invigorating breath of fresh air in this cluttered and vapid Summer blockbuster season (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, take a bow).

Sitting down in the cinema to watch a film which hasn't already given away its entire plot in an over-excessive, spoiler-heavy marketing campaign is an exciting feeling, evoking in me a sense of wonder which made me feel like a wide-eyed little kid again – a rare feat in this leak-heavy internet era where no work of art is safe from being ruined by the impatient hacker-savvy masses. Beyond this, even during the film, Super 8 still tries its utmost to hide its “surprise reveal”, keeping the treasure just out of shot or behind conveniently placed signposts until deep into its third act.

If I'm totally frank, I must admit that when the treasure was finally revealed and the pieces of the puzzle started fitting together into a coherent picture, I did find myself slightly disappointed. I won't spoil it for those who are yet to watch, but I will say that a saccharine sweet ending straight outta E.T. just seemed too neat and tidy for a film which had derived so much fun from keeping the audience guessing for ninety percent of the running time. One line of contrived dialogue in particular really irked me.

But mild anti-climax aside, Super 8 is by-and-large a sensational and tense sci-fi mystery thriller. As Charles relays to his best friend and number one make-up guy, Joe Lamb (Courtney), as he hands him a rewrite of his ever-changing zombie script: “the train scene is important because it makes the audience care for the characters. You want to see them live because they've got someone who loves them to go home to” – and, heeding his own advise, care for Abrams' characters you unquestionably will.

Protagonist Joe's heartbreaking back story (his mother was killed in a work-related accident just four months ago) and its ramifications for his under-pressure Deputy father (Chandler), first crush Alice (Fanning) and her brutish lout of a dad (Elard) frame the drama and adds considerable and identifiably humane weight to the ongoing out-of-this-world mayhem. Furthermore, these characters act like real people: they bicker, they fight, they argue, they banter and they tease – you'll continually find yourself tittering at the authentically grounded dialogue (particularly from the smart-mouthed kids), and this helps makes the horror all the more personable.

In a CR@B Shell: Surviving a train wreck, dodging the military, uncovering a long-quashed secret – and still these kids find the time to make a zombie movie and be hella funny! It's a pity the climax slightly sullied what was otherwise an exhilarating and unpredictable experience, but I'd nevertheless have no qualms in rewarding Super 8 a super 8/10 – which translates to a respectable 4 ticks outta 5 from this CR@B.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Turning of the Hide

12 – 83mins – 1972
Written by: Paul Dehn
Based on characters created by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, Natalie Trundy, Hari Rhodes, Severn Darden

All long running sagas fear going stale – yet a lot of them fail to dodge the inevitable slide into repetition: the Saw films became little more than an excuse to showcase ever-more elaborate and unpleasant death traps, while the Final Destination series refused to progress from the “Death claims back what's rightfully his” formula. It’s a fear of breaking a tried and tested method, I guess – but there are only so many times movie-goers will pay to watch the same film with a different numeric denomination shoved after the title.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record – Conquest is, after all, my fourth review in the Planet of the Apes series – but my admiration for the franchise’s ability to stay fresh and present ever-evolving stories this far down the line expands with every instalment. Sure, Beneath began as just another “astronaut lost amongst apes” tale, but nobody could have predicted the frankly insane curveball it threw as to what Brent and Taylor found living beneath the Forbidden Zone. Conquest continues this commendable reinvention but without swinging too far from the tree.

Set in 1991, some twenty years after the brutal slaying of Earth-bound intelligent chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius at the end of Escape, and a deadly plague has wiped out our planet’s cats and dogs. Desperate for some form of lower life form to govern - sorry: "love" - human’s started to take apes as pets – but primate’s ability to learn basic tasks and mimic human movement led man to take advantage, and very soon pets became slaves.

Circus owner Armando (Montalban; seen briefly in a crucial scene at Escape’s close and reprising the character in a larger role here) does not concur with the enslaving of apes, but then he is hiding a controversial secret: his own ape, Caesar (McDowall), is not as dumb as he looks. Caesar is, in fact, Milo, the son of Zira and Cornelius whom the authorities were led to believe perished alongside his parents at the oil rig showdown in 1973. But in actuality he has been brought up in the circus and must hide his identity and bite his tongue when out in public or face death at the hands of the fascist enforcers.

The “future” 1991 of Conquest is a very distinct but wholly disparate civilization to the 20th Century Earth we saw in the previous episode; PA systems give out solemn public service announcements to an obedient uniformed society, "Ape Management" compounds torture the rounded-up monkeys into submission before engraining menial tasks into them, and police units patrol with truncheons at the ready in case an ape should put a paw out of line: it’s suffocating and unsettling, like something out of 1984 or THX 1138!

But when Armando is violently interrogated about Caesar’s true identity, the humanoid ape must go undercover amongst his own kind. Put through sadistic reconditioning, Caesar ends up being sold at auction and working for Governor Breck (Murray), whose chief aide, MacDonald (Rhodes), is sympathetic to simians. Learning of Armando’s death, Caesar is unable to contain his rage and he proceeds to round up his primitive brethren, teaching them combat and weapon techniques in secret. Revolution is in the air; one which will forever alter the course of human – and ape – history…

I have absolutely no hesitation in listing Conquest as by far my favourite of the Apes sequels; a strong concept is supported by an atmospheric environ and an epic final showdown. Watching the ape army silently advance through the concrete jungle towards the riot police was truly creepy, while the insurrection itself was a savage and bloody affair – and this was just the theatrical cut on DVD, as opposed to the more intense extended edition on Blu ray!

Caesar’s voiceless rallying of the troops with a stare and a nod did bring back painful memories of the telepathy employed by the mutants in Beneath, but of course he couldn’t speak to chimps who couldn’t (yet) understand him. Furthermore, I found Armando’s exposition-crammed dialogue in explaining the events which led up to this film to be horrendously clunky and unsubtle, but any minor qualms were more than dispersed by Caesar’s victory speech to his soldiers at Conquest’s sizzling conclusion:

“But now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding. So, cast out your
vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”
In a word: epic.

In a CR@B Shell: A truly remarkable achievement for a third sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a radical and (literally) revolutionary delight. Dark, cynical and pulling no punches – I’m tempted to shell out for the 40th Anniversary Franchise Blu-ray set just to see the alternative cut!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Life Will Find a Way

12 – 93mins – 1971
Written by: Paul Dehn
Based on characters created by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Don Taylor
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy, Eric Braeden, Ricardo Montalban, William Windom, Sal Mineo


Prior to the decimation of their world at Beneath's apocalyptic climax, intelligent chimpanzees Zira (Hunter), Cornelius (McDowall) and Dr. Milo (Mineo) managed to rescue and repair astronaut Colonel Taylor's sunken spacecraft from the lakes of the Forbidden Zone (as seen in the 1968 opener, reviewed HERE) and leave their embattled land behind. Caught in the same temporal distortion which previously stranded two human expeditions in their time, they are instead sent hurtling backwards; back to the 20th Century when man ruled the world and apes couldn't speak – much less wear clothes, use cutlery or fly spaceships!

Turning the tables on the already topsy-turvy core series concept, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is, ostensibly, the lightest of the sequels in tone – at least initially. Directed by Don Taylor (who went on to direct 1977's The Island of Dr Moreau; I'm picking up a definate animal-sapien theme here), this third entry in the evergreen Apes franchise provides a mirror image of the iconic original “fish out of water” plot, only this time man isn't the outsider. But will being on home soil change how we as a race react to that which is different to us? Don't count on it.

Deriving much culture shock humour from the misconceptions brought about by the global media circus surrounding the trio of tabloid-branded “ape-onauts”, you'd be forgiven for thinking Escape was being played for laughs – especially during a chirpy montage sequence where the chimps get measured for tailor-made clothes and Cornelius refuses to have his leg felt up! However, Paul Dehn's script never lingers too long on the monkey business (ahem) and never crosses the line into cheese. Most tellingly, it isn't long before mankind's fear of losing his dominance over nature overwhelms his scientific fascination and one man (Braeden's Dr. Otta Hasslein) steps up to “control” the “threat” he fails to understand.

Initially held in captivity at a zoo before being upgraded to a plush five star hotel, a heavily pregnant Zira and her over-protective spouse are initially sceptical about how open to be about the future of the human race, and their doubts are well founded, as they are first interviewed, then interrogated and subsequently drugged to extract the truth from them – a truth which man cannot bear. Soon the former toasts of the town are on the run from their fickle and untrustworthy admirers and a tense oil rig showdown continues the saga's predilection for desolate, heart-wrenching finales.

Thankfully distancing this chapter from Beneath's bogus mutant misstep, Zira and Cornelius assert that the pacifistic chimps are ignorant to the enemy the ape army marched on in the fateful underground battle. Taylor's story is also well laced into the plot; particularly as the film opens with the long-lost U.S. vessel already capsized in the ocean, leaving it up to the first time flyers to report the events during a demanding public inquiry. The film's darker elements – including Dr. Milo's early exit and the shockingly pessimistic ending – stop the quirky comedy fromBold overpowering the drama, while a ray of hope remains as the credits roll that man has not completely extinguished this evolutionary anomaly... Life will find a way.

In a CR@B Shell: Another Apes-equel and another fresh, disparate story; this idea really does have legs! Escape may have dated due to its 70's setting, but it's a captivating and endearing tale which doesn't lose its message amongst all the kitsch hullabaloo – and it isn't scared to stretch its emotional range, much to its unpredictable advantage.

Friday, 5 August 2011

What Prays Beneath

15 – 90mins – 1970
Story by: Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams
Screenplay by: Paul Dehn
Based on characters created by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Ted Post
Starring: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Charlton Heston, David Watson, James Gregory


For the opening hour of this first sequel to the iconic Planet of the Apes (reviewed HERE), Beneath... progresses agreeably. Although it could be argued that bringing a second astronaut – in the form of John Brent’s (Franciscus) one-man rescue party – to this upside-down society where apes rule and man is but a primitive plaything was just a retread of Colonel George Taylor’s (Heston) story, there was still much to enjoy.

Simple (and lazy) though it was, I was fond of the way the film opened with a replay of the jaw-dropping events which ended Apes, before interrupting Taylor ’s horseback trot into the sunset with mute Nova (Harrison) with a close encounter with a curious wall of flames and then having him inexplicably vanish in the so-called “Forbidden Zone” beyond the simian society. Brent – who it must be noted does share more than a passing resemblance to a bearded Taylor – herein takes over the role of alpha male, even taking the luscious female companion along with him.

Our return to Ape City is successful in expanding our understanding of this hierarchical simian society, where the gorillas are selected as the soldiers and their leader, General Ursus (Gregory), believes it is high time they march on the Forbidden Zone to mine the vacant land for food. Chimpanzees Cornelius (Watson, stepping in for McDowall for one film only) and Zira (Hunter) are staunchly opposed to the rally – as is secretive orangutan Dr. Zaius (Evans) – but nevertheless the domineering gorillas get their way and the march proceeds.

Hiding from the army, Brent and Nova discover the buried ruins of old New York (our New York ) and their descent through the rubble is wonderfully atmospheric. Despite a budget just half the size of the ‘68 predecessor, the set work looks grand. Alas, it is here where the film goes completely off the rails into “ape shit crazy” territory. Brent and Nova are tortured by a sect of telepathic super humans (yes, you read that correctly) who worship an undetonated nuclear bomb left over from the war which previously destroyed society as we know it.

I can accept the nuclear bomb – that actually fits into the universe that has been established – but to suddenly present a bizarre cult of disturbing mutants who can peel off their skin to reveal a horrible web of veins (I'm still not quite sure why) and have an implausible talent for speechless communication feels horribly disingenuous to what has come before. It’s ludicrous and awkward and feels like a completely different film entirely; as if the apes suddenly don’t matter and we’ve stepped into The Omega Man! My question is this: If humankind has been reduced to primal mutes following the nuclear fallout, how the hell do these skin-peeling freaks fit into the new world order??

As the ape army force themselves back into the picture and break into this subterranean stronghold, a bloody battle wages. I appreciated the increased level of viciousness (this is a ‘15’, the highest rated of the series) and it was a nice touch to bring the AWOL Taylor back for the final fight. Furthermore, the apocalyptic ending was a fantastic – if morbid – knockout blow (which could/should have finished the series), but in spite of all this I still struggle to get beyond that damn telepathic underground cult without screaming WHAT THE FUCK?!! Shame.

In a CR@B Shell: A fine first hour is completely eclipsed by a peculiar, game-changing final third; reducing what I initially thought was a decent sequel into an embarrassing ape-jumping travesty. I appreciate that it doesn’t rest on the original’s laurels, but Dr. Zaius was right – the Forbidden Zone should have been left well alone!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Simian Says...

12 – 107mins – 1968
Screenplay by: Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Based on the novel “Monkey Planet” by: Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Lou Wagner, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Jeff Burton


[SPOILERS] With franchise prequel/reboot, Rise..., mere days from release (and somewhat inspired by Film Intel's continuing trawl through the original quintet of films), I thought it was high time I journeyed back to the beginning and revisited our first glimpse of The Planet of the Apes. Over the last 43 years, Frankin J. Schaffner's iconic sci-fi has spawned four theatrical sequels, two television series, a Tim Burton remake and all manner of expanded universe fiction. There’s no denying it: these damn dirty apes are damn popular!

Astonishingly, the slick 1968 production still holds up to this day. The prosthetic ape make-up by artist John Chambers looks just as believable as it did in Tim Burton’s far more extravagant (but far less positively received) 2001 re-Apes, while the plot – based on a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle – is triumphant in delivering a resounding high-concept allegory in a powerful yet clear narrative.

A quartet of astronauts led by stern alpha male Taylor (Heston) awaken from a long voyage in deep sleep hibernation to find their craft has crash landed on an unknown world in the year 3978AD. Due to time dilation, they have only aged 18 months, but they must come to terms with the fact that everyone they knew on Earth has been dead for centuries. Now they must traverse this sparse, barren, alien landscape if they ever hope to return to what they once called home.

I really admire the steady, almost calm, pacing of this film – and that is in no way a backhanded compliment. Devoting the first 30minutes to a slow desert jaunt is something today's ADHD Hollywood simply wouldn't allow; other than finding a patch of fauna and snapping at one another, bugger all really happens but it lulls the audience into a false sense of security and we obtain great insights into the conflicting personalities of this minimalist cast before the groundbreaking revelations rock their world.

The socially aware subtext cleverly incorporates denouncements of race and class divisions, animal cruelty and the age-old showdown between science and faith – timeless issues which still rage today – yet Planet of the Ape's plot is essentially very simple: Taylor is captured by the dominant apes and caged like a mute, primitive pet until his power of speech convinces certain open-minded simians – animal psychologist Zira (Hunter) and her archaeologist fiancé Cornelius (McDowall) - that he may be the “missing link”; a key to unlocking the secrets of their past, while others – the shady Dr. Zaius (Evans), keeper of the faith – believe Taylor's appearance to be a Pandora's Box which should never be opened...

The sedate and speculative script offers up a feast of perfectly placed and powerfully executed twists and reveals which move the story along terrifically, from the condition of female astronaut Stewart (Dianne Stanley) to Landon's (Gunner) lobotomised zombification. Much to the credit of the film-makers (but the detriment of the climax), the iconic final shot of the Statue of Liberty has embedded itself in public culture (it's even on the front of the DVD case for Zaius' sake!) and it barely registers as a twist anymore – but can you imagine that ending catching you off guard in a cinema in 1968? Now that's a sucker punch!

In a CR@B Shell: Forget about Tim Burton's awkward modern rehash and immerse yourself in a slice of prototypical vintage science fiction. Enjoy either as first rate avant garde eye candy or dig a little deeper to unearth its societal message; Planet of the Apes really is an advanced breed of film-making.