A Gert Lush Christmas (TV Review)

BBC2 – 26th December 2015 – 60mins
Written by: Russell Howard and Steve Williams
Directed by: Al Campbell 

LET’S GET READY TO RHABBLE

Write what you know, so the saying goes, and stand-up comedian and Good News presenter Russell Howard does just that in his first foray into scripted television and acting. Here he gives himself the very Russell-like role of Dan Coleman, a young guy who lives in London with his girlfriend of six months, Lisa (Hannah Britland). Rather than holidaying in Barbados with her family, for their first Christmas together Dan is taking Lisa home to the small town of Bamford in Bristol, to meet his less-than-usual family for the very first time… in their fairy-light “vajazzled” semi.

Happy Holidays(!!).

Headed up by vest-wearing, stubble-proud dad Dan (Neil Morrissey) and chatterbox mum, Sue (Sophie Thompson), the Coleman’s are an eccentric bunch of West Country personalities; they over-share and over-enthuse in a colloquial, classless way, but underneath the rapacious burping and risqué banter, they are a lovable, caring brood. But will Lisa appreciate their in-your-face wedding talk and dinnertime debate over her “womanly” figure? And will Dan and Lisa’s blossoming relationship survive a Christmas party at silver-tongued, celeb-chasing Uncle Tony’s (Greg Davies) pad?

The first half of this hour-long comedy-drama is jam-packed with witty dialogue, self-deprecating corkers and sherry-spitting blue humour (some of which I recognised from Russell’s stand-up repertoire) as the Coleman rabble fuss excitedly over the new arrival – but a disastrous case of mistaken identity (and some “unnaturally” lowered inhibitions) at the party shifts the atmosphere into a far more sombre, depressive tone – and it never really returns to fifth gear.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, as the story naturally progresses from Dan’s soul-crushing depression at losing the love of his life to a heart-warming and inspiring conclusion which brilliantly ties Dan’s plot into that of his young magic-loving nephew Bertie’s (Samuel Woodward), but it does leave the humour feeling a little front-loaded.

Thankfully, the script sizzles, even when it isn’t bustling with anecdotes about peckish swans, member nicknames or aroused roadkill, and my opinion of the wacky Coleman clan morphed from eye-rolling despair at their outlandishness to warm appreciation at their genuine concern and compassion, even if it is sometimes well hidden.

Bravo to Russell Howard and co-writer Steve Williams for a well-rounded script and to Russell for an emotionally-varied performance; A Gert Lush Christmas is a simple-but-relatable piece of feel-good Christmas television with a sentimental message which will leave you cherishing your own family, flaws, warts, wigs and all.

But next year, best jet off to Barbados!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Dark Disciple (Book Review)

Written by: Christie Golden, 2015
Published in the UK by: Century (A Penguin Random House imprint)
302 pages


Dark Disciple CoverLETHAL ALLIANCE

Prior to Disney’s acquisition of the franchise, it is fair to say that Star Wars’ vast expanded universe was bordering on the impregnable. With all previous novels now relegated to “Legends” status and all new publications going forward being deemed official canon, I was provided the perfect opportunity to get back into the literary side-arm of a galaxy far, far away.

As of December 2015, we are seven books in to the new timeline, with Alan Dean Foster’s The Force Awakens novelisation in January to be the eighth. Of these seven I have now read six, with only videogame companion Battlefront: Twilight Company still to digest. Sadly, the much-anticipated output so far has been a real ragbag, ranging from the slow and boring (A New Dawn) to the slight and underwhelming (Heir to the Jedi), to the needlessly vociferous (Tarkin).

The more recent publications have seen a – thankful – upswing in quality, with Vader and Sidious story Lords of the Sith and Chuck Wendig’s Return of the Jedi sequel Aftermath both proving far more engaging reads (although the latter title, which flits across the galaxy in first-person perspective, is not without its detractors).

But it is bestselling media tie-in author Christie Golden’s Dark Disciple which has so far proved to be the jewel in the prose crown. Set during the Clone Wars period between prequel Episodes II and III, we follow headstrong and roguish Jedi Master Quinlan Vos as he is tasked by the Jedi Council with a dangerous – but potentially war-ending – task: to assassinate Separatist Leader and Sith Lord Count Dooku.

It’s a big ask of a keeper of the light to go against all they have been trained and to murder a man in cold blood – even one as deserving of such a fate as the former Jedi-turned-traitor. So, to go about his challenging mission, Vos is partnered with a fitting but unwitting accomplice – one with the skill and motivation to take down an enemy as powerful as Dooku: his force-sensitive, former dark-side assassin, Asajj Ventress.

A striking character both physically and psychologically, Asajj has truly been through the wringer. From embracing the dark side as Dooku’s “pet” to turning against her former master for his treacherous wiping out of her clan of Nightsisters, she truly toes the paper-thin line between the dark and the light, and usually works much better alone. How will the lone wolf fair with a dashing, silver-tongued Jedi by her side?

As much as this is Vos’s story, it is when the dominant and spunky Asajj is centre-stage that Dark Disciple truly sparks to life; her mind a jumble of light and dark, right and wrong, love and war. She is a fascinatingly complex, playful and well-rounded soul to get under the ice-white skin of and her conflicting characteristics – particularly when coupled with Vos’ rebellious qualities – bring an astounding emotional depth to this dark elimination story.

As the characters themselves struggle with their loyalties to the Force, I was impressed by how willing Golden was to show the flaws of the Jedi way. As much as their weakness is seen in their fall on film, Dark Disciple often highlights how their regimented religious coda closes them off to feelings and intuitions which the Dark Side is more attuned to. Sometimes it is frustrating to behold as their adversaries feel one step ahead of them and it is no wonder so many have questioned the Jedi Code.

Based on unproduced episodes of Lucasfilm’s popular – and cancelled at its prime – animated series, it is unclear how much the success of this novel is down to Ms. Golden’s propulsive, writerly skill, or The Clone Wars’ scriptwriters, who are credited in the novel with having penned the eight episode arc upon which the novel is based. Did the author expand, amend or significantly revise the story, or merely adapt the script verbatim into story form?

Regardless, Dark Disciple is a stunning, heartfelt read with truly calamitous consequences. This is not mere money-making filler, but a legitimate and worthy addition to the universe. It is a travesty that Disney’s game-changing plans scuppered our opportunity to ever see this deep, redemptive and character-defining story unfold on our screens, but if novel form is the only way we can get such poignant, page-turning and well-structured character-driven fare going forward, then I am happy to take it – and any more Asajj stories still lingering in the script library, too, please!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Strange Magic (DVD Review)

PG – 99mins – 2015


CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE

Palmed off onto their smaller Touchstone division and quietly released onto minimal screens Stateside in the doldrums of last January, this colourful Lucasfilm fairytale musical – part of the lucrative package which Disney paid $4billion for back in 2012 – was plainly earmarked to fail. I was determined to show my support for George Lucas’ first post-“retirement” gig, but this left UK screens in the blink of an eye following a delayed release a couple of months ago.

… Keep Scuttling!

Krampus: The Christmas Devil (DVD Review)


15 – 80mins – 2013


FOR GOODNESS SAKE!

Christmas may be the time of goodwill to all men, but even at my most benevolent I cannot conjure up enough festive cheer to agree with searchmytrash.com that writer/director/producer Jason Hull’s amateurish claptrap is “a nice piece of horror cinema” – for one, it’s the epitome of no-budget, DIY movie-making, and secondly: exactly how many cinemas did this direct-to-DVD bunkum play at??!

Kudos to the marketing department over at High Fliers Films, however, whose snow-drenched, bloodied-claw cover really sold the film to me. The fact that the slightly-misleading, photoshopped packaging looks far better than the film it holds is neither here-nor-there, as I had already parted with my hard-earned £2.70 by that point. And who isn’t disappointed by their presents once the wrapping has come off?

When I first noticed Krampus: The Christmas Devil towards the south pole of the DVD chart shelves, I instantly knew it was shamelessly piggybacking on the other Krampus film this year (the one that legitimately did make it into cinemas, searchmytrash.com). But The Christmas Devil was actually made first, and uses the German folk lore of the “Anti Clause” in a slightly different fashion.

Here, the hoofed n’ hooded supernatural menace is St. Nick’s brother, who has until midnight on Christmas Eve to abduct the children who made it onto the naughty list. 20 years ago, one child escaped the icy pool Krampus plunged him into, only to grow up into a policeman who has made it his life-long mission to hunt for the serial holiday kidnapper.

It’s not a dreadful concept, but every other aspect of this sorrowful production lets it down – subpar am dram acting; shoddy, scratchy camera work; laboured, time-killing editing; minimal money-saving “effects”; and a story which comes to no real conclusion (no doubt, they would argue, to sequel bait) as the film draws to an all-too-hasty close after little over an hour.

Yes, they tried. There’s an attempt at atmosphere with a stock-footage-filled introduction of festive merriment over a scene-setting narration, the opening credits are presented in the form of an old dusty tome on the eponymous legend being turned page-by-page, and the ground is always cover with snow – all staples of traditional Christmas films – but these are all valiant efforts thwarted by their miserliness.

The concentration of all the abductions to the small US town of Cambridge Falls is, no doubt, a location saving necessity, but to show Krampus trampling back to his dank, candle-lit lair a mere few miles upstream saps any supernatural notion from proceedings. Surely he should be a worldwide threat with a base either at the North Pole or some mystical and mysterious location?!

The film’s biggest crime, however, is its deplorable use of Santa Clause as a swearing, uncaring co-conspirator of his evil brother’s nefarious ways. The usually jolly bringer of joy pops into his brothers lair a couple of times (a quick trip on his sleigh, no doubt) and even endorses the horror – at one point shouting at a young caged victim that it is his fault he is on the naughty list and he deserves to be killed… ho, ho, horrendous!!

Merry Krampus, everyone – I hope you don’t find this rotten turkey in your stocking this year. Unless you’ve been really naughty…

CR@B Verdict: 1 star

Le Talent De Mes Ami (DVD Review)


15 – 93mins – 2015


THANKS TO MY FRIENDS

An effervescent French comedy-drama about how easy it is to slip into a rut, waste your potential and unconsciously give up on your dreams. With flashes of quirky humour which bring to life the juvenile imaginings of 30-something best pals Alex (Alex Lutz) and Jeff (Tom Dingler), this has shades of the charming Amelie about it, but also more than a passing resemblance to the breezy air of (500) Days of Summer.

When Alex’s old childhood friend Thibault (Bruno Sanches) turns up at his dull multinational firm a handsome, successful, go-getting motivational speaker and life couch, Alex’s relaxed, seemingly-contented existence is thrown into confusion, as he questions his job, his life and his goals. But where does comfortable-yet-apathetic Jeff fit into his new plans?

You don’t always concur with Alex’s newfound, rash decision-making as he sets out to make a name for himself and be a star, but his journey is an interesting and genuine one – even if presented in such a light, irreverent way. You see relationships formed and fumbled, emotions rise and fall and success loom on the horizon.

While it is straight-guy Alex whose path we follow, Jeff is the stand-out character. A simple, cheeky chap who gets joy from simple things, his heartfelt epiphany in the closing stages is a real eye-opening – and mature – moment of clarity for the three divergent men. This is well worth your time, even if you leave the characters in much the same shape you found them – but such is life.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Cinema Review)


12A – 136mins – 2015 – 3D


THE SAGA STRIKES BACK

Mild Spoiler Alert: I will not give away any of the STUPENDOUS story spoilers here – mainly because a vindictive twitter troll ruined them for me and I would not wish such needless twattery upon any other fan – but there may be a few tidbits I allude to or touch upon which you may prefer not to know, pre-viewing.

You have been warned.

… Keep Scuttling!

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (DVD Review)


18 – 2014 – 96mins


LITTLE RED BITING HOOD

A slowly-paced black and white horror, spoken in Urdu, with a mouthful of a title which does little to explain or enthuse, and featuring characters as unsavoury and unrelatable as junkies, thieves, pimps and prostitutes – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does NOT make things easy for itself to be accepted by the mainstream film-watcher! But Ana Lily Amirpour’s monochrome vampire romance excels in standing apart from the crowd.

Set in the aptly named Bad City in Iran, the Girl of the title is a quiet, hooded loner who stalks the seedy streets of this criminal underworld, picking off the immoral and taunting the innocent. Homely actor Sheila Vand (pictured) does not a terrifying or intimidating monster make, but Amirpour’s stark visuals and sparse soundtrack, combined with the surreal and disquieting atmosphere, makes for a creepy, spectral viewing experience which stays with you.

Watching the girl mutely mirror heroin addict Hossein (Marshall Manesh) from across an empty road, or shadow a young street urchin before inexplicably appearing ahead of him are simple yet strange and deliciously uncomfortable notions. They shouldn’t work, particularly not when modern audiences are so accustomed to the excessive gore and brutality of recent horror fare, but they do. And effectively.

The crawling, uncomplicated narrative sees tide-fighting young man Arash (Arash Marandi) fall for the bewitching blood-sucker, as her compassion for a living meal grows. Not a great deal is spoken, but the emotions portrayed – even while the mismatched pair are simply listening to a record or using a paperclip to pierce her ears – speak volumes, and you always get the lurking impression that something sinister and unpredictable might happen at any moment.

Given the subject matter and genre, there are predictable shades of recent foreign language vampire romance Let The Right One In, but AGWHAaN is also very much its own beast – confident, powerful and iconic despite its stripped back, reduced scale and restraint; I’ll definitely return for a second bite and heartily recommend even hardened subtitle-phobes take a walk with this captivating Girl.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Trainwreck – Extended (DVD Review)


15 – 124mins – 2015


SCHUTING FROM THE HIPFLASK

This is the first time I have witnessed the force of nature that is U.S. stand-up comedian Amy Schumer, however it is fair to say that her reputation precedes her. I was well aware of what to expect from her first leading role and screenplay gig – crude female-empowering jokes largely derived from sexuality – and, for better or worse, Trainwreck does not disappoint on that front.

Amy plays Amy (this being an amplified version of her pre-fame days, apparently), a magazine writer who shuns responsibility and sleeps around. A lot. Even when in a relationship. “Empowering”?! Hmmm… Reluctantly taking an assignment to interview sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), Amy finds herself in unfamiliar territory – a loving relationship. But can her straight-laced beau persuade her to end her careless, commitment-phobic ways?

Hader plays to type as a genial everyman who verges on the pedestrian, though quite what he sees in a drink-swilling loudmouth like Amy is beyond me. Nevertheless, the tale plays out as expected, with Amy initially rebelling against mature feelings before a big bust up leaves her missing the man she thought she could move on from.

Directed by Bridesmaids and Superbad comedy king Judd Apatow (with Schumer’s script expanded from ideas the pair worked on), Trainwreck sticks with his tried and tested formula of mixing drama with comedy in a film which is at least 20minutes longer than it really should be. It is in the quieter, more introspective moments of soul-searching that the characters shine, rather than in the barrage of inappropriate sex n’ drugs jokes, which often don’t sit comfortably together.

The expansive cast are a mixed bag of agreeable and ghastly. Basketball star LeBron James comes off wonderfully, playing himself (a friend and patient of Dr. Conners) as a gentle giant, while Tilda Swinton is nearly unrecognisable as Amy’s horrific blunt-tongued editor. Colin Quinn is far from likeable as Amy’s less-than-perfect pa, however his character’s arc does bring some much-needed catharsis to proceedings.

This will not be everyone’s idea of hilarious, but there are moments of genius amid the tasteless dreck. Amy Schumer’s debut feature is at least true to her, and for that it isn’t a complete Trainwreck, even if the journey starts to wear thin by the time we alight.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

A Very Murray Christmas (Netflix Review)


12 – 56mins – 2015


OVER TO BILL 

Even after opening the first handful of doors on my advent calendar and gazing in misty-eyed wonder at the fairy lights now adorning our front porch, I am still struggling to get into the festive spirit this year. So, in an effort to rustle up some cheer, I sat down last Friday to watch my first Christmas special of 2015: Netflix’s exclusive, long-anticipated irreverent take on the variety show starring Ebenezer Scrooge – well, “Frank Cross” – himself, Bill Murray.

After all, if you are in need of cheering up – who ya gonna call?!

Now, I know the Scrooged star is renowned for his dour, grumpy public persona, and I fully expected this brisk, sub-60minute production to play up to that lack of Christmas cheer, and it did (just check his hangdog mug on the poster). But what I wasn’t expecting – particularly given how this was co-written and directed by Murray’s award-winning Lost In Translation director Sophia Coppella – was the bizarre, directionless mess A Very Murray Christmas turned out to be.

Murray plays Murray – unpredictable, eye-rolling irritation and all – preparing to (begrudgingly) host a live televised variety show on December 24th, except a blizzard has meant that none of the big-name guests can make it to New York. Poorly planned and unrehearsed, weather (thankfully) knocks out the electricity mid-way through a cringeworthy impromptu duet with last-minute stand-in Chris Rock.

While not rolling with laughter, I could at least get on board with the farcical, bad-to-worse parody I was watching, famous faces such as Amy Poelher and Michael Cera talking over one another as chaos ensued behind the scenes, but then things take a turn for the surreal

A now free-for-the-night Murray makes his way to the restaurant at the Carlyle Hotel – piano-playing musical director Paul Schaffer (of The Late Show fame) shadowing his every move; keys and a mic always to hand – where he drums up Christmas spirit by offering philosophical relationship advise to a devastated married couple (Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones) whose ceremony has been postponed, while eating the de-frosted wedding feast and rallying the motley bar staff into karaoke.

Alcohol takes its toll and Murray eventually collapses into a dream sequence where he hosts a glitzy, well-oiled high-end variety show featuring A-list guests George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, before he wakes up on Christmas morning for one final piano-led croon with Paul and “concierge” Dimitri Dimitrov and things are brought to an anti-climatic close.

Where to start? This just did not work for me on any level. What was it trying to be? It wasn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious enough to be a tongue-in-cheek parody and it was too weird and not wacky enough to be an out-an-out spoof. There was no real-world resolution to the cancelled TV show catalyst, leaving me baffled by the meandering nature of what passed for a plot.

Furthermore, everyone on screen seems to be having an absolute blast, which left me feeling disconnected from the jokes, like the uncool kid who stands in the corner at a party. The jazz lounge vibe came off as hoity and pompous rather than jovial and unifying, while I couldn’t shake the feeling that Murray Christmas was trying way too hard to be clever and anti-network, but the rebel routine came unstuck due to the metaphoric chip on its shoulder.

Seeing some celebrities play themselves while others played everyday characters was jarring and spoiled the meta construct, while the whole production seemed meandering and ramshackle – people come and go for seemingly no reason, microphone’s shoved in their hands for Christmas renditions of varying degrees of quality and appeal – while the dream sequence felt like music video padding (particularly when Murray exits to let Miley sing solo), but one that calls to mind Billy Mack’s “Christmas is All Around” from Love, Actually. That spoof worked because it was obvious that Bill Nye couldn’t sing and didn’t care. Murray can’t either, but this fact is ignored as he powers through regardless.

In a CR@B Shell: Murray mint? Hardly. Had A Very Murray Christmas been any longer I don’t think I’d have continued to suck it. Bah, humbug.
1 star

Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie (DVD Review)

PG – 99mins – 1997


Even after my recent rewatch of childhood favourite Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie, it was a bold decision for me to “return” to the sequel as this was in actuality my first viewing. By 1997 even I couldn’t kid myself anymore: I was far too old for all this camp zord-versus-giant-alien gubbins, so I never watched this follow-up feature when it was initially released.

Of course I would look on the movie with a more mature, critical eye now, but I still can’t imagine even the adolescent fanboy in me being impressed by this absolute disaster. Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie is a far cry from the franchise’s original theatrical release; the look more in keeping with the cheap-as-chips TV series (spandex suits, model backdrops, actors in flimsy costumes) as opposed to the more polished (read: expensive) effects employed in 1995’s The Movie.

Furthermore, Turbo doesn’t stand on its own all that brilliantly either, slotting into the show’s continuity rather than being a direct feature sequel, so there are different Rangers using different power sources from first time around.

There are infinitesimal cameos from popular former foes Rita Repulsa and her inside-out husband Lord Zedd, but Turbo otherwise introduces new adversaries in the form of underwater dominatrix Divatox (Hilary Shepard Turner) and her dorky mutant cronies.

Appearances by original Pink and Red Rangers Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson) and Jason (Austin St. John) are welcome callbacks to the original players, even if their in-universe reasons for showing up is wholly contrived, while the introduction of a new Blue Ranger in the form of a child (Blake Foster) who magically grows to adult proportions when he morphs is absurd.

The story, meanwhile, is a horridly over-complicated planet-hopping mess made even more impenetrable by an abundance of unpronounceable peeps ranting on about jargonous nonsense. “Pure” sacrifices to alien overlords, dimensional barriers, keys to open portals and spectral pirate ghost ships (!!) – apparently the film originally weighed in at a staggering three hours and half the guff was (rightfully) scrapped.

While initially touted as a worldwide theatrical release, Turbo was dropped in a number of territories and released direct to home video instead. Can’t say I’m surprised…

CR@B Verdict: 1 star