Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Book Review)

By: Alan Dean Foster, 2016
Released in the UK by: Century
260 pages


AS SEEN ON SCREEN

As precursors to the big-screen bows of Episodes I-III, the release of the prequel trilogy novelizations were events – our first indication of where the expanding Star Wars universe was heading. I can vividly remember Channel 4’s cheesy morning show The Big Breakfast back in 1999 reciting excerpts from Terry Brooks’ The Phantom Menace novel as the presenter sat on a green-screened magic carpet flying through space!

With secrecy so high and spoilers such a toxic subject these days, such a high-profile release was robbed of Alan Dean Foster’s literary take on The Force Awakens, which belatedly saw its way to bookshop shelves a whole month after the film had debuted in cinemas.

But still, I thought, this will be well worth a read, right? After all, this is ADF, the man who penned Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first ever prose sequel set in a galaxy far, far away (two years before Empire struck cinemas). Prior to this he also ghost-wrote the Star Wars novelisation (under George Lucas’ name), so he is an author held in high regard by fans and the perfect choice for this retro-relishing saga refresh.

Sadly, The Force Awakens made for a trying read – despite being little over 250pages long! Whether I am half to blame for having seen the film six times (so far), I cannot say, but whereas other film-to-book adaptations delve deeper into the story and the internal processes of the characters, TFA is a far sketchier and more literal as-seen-on-screen transcript.

A couple of additional scenes – notably earlier appearances by Leia at the Resistance base and Poe’s post-crash escape from Jakku – add words but little substance. The former would have ruined the impact of Leia’s on-screen entrance, while the latter only tells half the story, with Poe still on the sandy backwater planet when the chapter ends and the action flits back to the film narrative. Ultimately superfluous.

But my biggest gripe with this novel is in the dialogue. A lot has been made of these new Disney-era books being official canon – therefore what happens on page and what happens on screen should complement and not contradict one another. ADF was clearly given free rein to expand upon the script, which I would have no issue with if it was additional to what we saw in the film, but he almost flippantly alters lines and adds words seemingly for no better reason than to bolster the word count. It makes for a frustrating, if admittedly pedantic, flaw in the continuity.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

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Ratman (DVD Review)


18 – 82mins – 1988


HALF NELSON

I was compelled to sniff out this trashy 80’s Italian slasher after listening to uproarious podcast The 80s PictureHouse savagely maul it to death on day four of their recent “12 Days of Crapmas” series. How could a gore-fest about an escaped rat-monkey hybrid – played by the smallest actor in the world, The Island of Dr. Moreau’s Nelson de la Rosa – not be an insanely entertaining, if tasteless, guilty pleasure?!

Sadly, not even gratuitous nudity and genre stalwarts David Warbeck (The Beyond), Eva Grimaldi and Janet Agren (City of the Living Dead) can save director Giuliano Carnimeo’s exploitation abomination from single-star shame. I’m sure a combination of booze and buddies would lead to a riotous viewing experience (at the film, rather than with it), but sober and alone I was all too aware of the dubious effects, lame production values, logic-void script and atrocious dubbing!

But Ratman’s biggest crime is its scandalous underuse of its trump card. Pint-sized de la Rosa surely is the film, yet for the entire first half of this diminutive sub-90minute creature feature, he is granted less than a minute’s screen time!! And when he eventually is seen in all his 72cm glory (emerging from a toilet bowl, no less), the shoddy make-up job presents him as a joke (abnormally giant rodent gnashes being the worst offenders) rather than the uncanny, scurrying murderous mutant maniac “Mousey” is.

So it’s a parody, then, fully embracing its grotesque wackiness? Well… no. Because despite seemingly basking in the ludicrousness of it all – and employing an ingeniously revolting tagline: “He’s the Critter from the Shitter” – Ratman is played straight, preferring to gross us out with profuse video nasty-grade slaughter rather than hamming up the surreal angle. Therefore any ham is unintentional and clearly a fault of the lacklustre budget and *ahem* talents of those behind the lens.

The fact the long-unreleased region 2 DVD is distributed by a company called Shameless Screen Entertainment should have been a big enough hint (even they gamely rip it to shreds on the blurb). Podcast presenters and cheesy film aficionados Dave and Thom also did their utmost to warn listeners away from this forgotten stinker. But like a rodent to cheese I was drawn in like a salivating patsy… and sadly struck by the trap.

D-rat, man!

CR@B Verdict: 1 star 

SHADOWHUNTERS, 1.1 – “The Mortal Cup” (Netflix Review)


Netflix – Premiered: 13th January 2016
Screenplay by: Ed Decter
Directed by: McG


SUPERNATURAL FIGHT CLUB

Author Cassandra Clare’s popular teen fantasy series The Mortal Instruments was originally adapted for the big screen in 2013 with the clunky addition of the first novel’s subtitle making for a rambling, incoherent mouthful to spit out at the box office. Maybe that was one of the reasons the film failed to make enough money to justify proceeding with book two? That, and after an engaging introduction, City of Bones dissolved into a convoluted nightmare which left franchise newbies out in the cold.

Determined to make the most of the property rights, defiant producers Constantin Film took the brave decision to instead adapt the series for television, and just over two years later, Shadowhunters is that small screen reboot. Available on Netflix UK in weekly instalments (and just a day behind the US broadcast), episode one brings us a new cast retelling a familiar story – and seemingly failing to learn from the film’s failings.

On the night of her 18th birthday, Art student Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) learns that vampires, warlocks, demons… “All the legends are true” and she herself is a Shadowhunter, a human/angel hybrid with the ability to see supernatural entities invisible to the human eye. When her mother (Maxim Roy) is abducted by demons intent on possessing the titular antiquity, Clary accepts her destiny and joins a band of fellow Shadowhunters to hone her powers and save her mum.

Exposition is to be expected in all pilot episodes, but “The Mortal Cup” barely gives us time to settle in our seats before assaulting our senses with a tumult of in-universe jargon and incredulous concepts we are meant to rapidly assimilate and apply to the narrative unfolding before us. “Mundanes” are humans who don’t have “The Sight” – the ability to see supernatural creatures who can “Glamour” (become invisible) – but “Downworlders” (demons) can.

With me so far?

My review notebook also includes numerous other hastily jotted monikers, some of which mere hours later I am failing to recall descriptions of: “The Circle”, “The Clave”, “Shapeshifters”, “Ravener Demons”…?? “You’re just saying words now” Clary knowingly denounces – and it’s true, there is far too much to take on board in one forty minute episode, particularly when we’re still learning to accept these strangers as lead characters. And don’t even get me started on the potions, runes, weapons and mystical heirlooms which whizz before our tired eyes!

There are some nice touches in Ed Decter’s screenplay: references to Twitter ground the status quo in a present-day comfort zone, while the first innocuous glimpse at Clary’s uncanny powers (her biscotti transforms into a drawing etched into the café’s table) is nifty and original, but all-too-soon things start to feel superficial and false.

The eye candy cast were clearly chosen for their looks rather than their delivery, with even Clary’s “normal” best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende) a barely-disguised hunk. “All you… stunning people!” Clary backhandedly compliments Jace (Dominic Sherwood), head of her new band of Shadowhunters, as she all-too-willingly changes into a leather mini-skirt. Apparently that’s what all the demon-hunters wear these days…

It’s hard to believe that feature film director McG (Charlies Angel: Full Throttle, Terminator Salvation) was calling the shots on this debut, because there was an inauthentically glossy sheen to everything which pulled me right out of believing in this world. The fight scenes felt over-rehearsed and strictly choreographed, while the camera seemed to linger just a split second too long on all CGI shots and stunt work. Even the rainstorm looked unnatural!

For all its nice touches, the script is also not free from reprimand. Having the bad guys quip “Demons dig blondes” made me cringe the first time it was uttered, only for it to be called back to! Meanwhile, Clary’s mum admitted she had been waiting 18 years for the opportunity to reveal her daughter’s life-defining prophecy to her, only to bungle it in such a flippant, spontaneous manner that you wonder if she’d ever bothered to prepare for it at all!

I’m not going to give up on Shadowhunters quite yet – Clare’s novels are obviously popular for a reason. I will give the series a couple more episodes to find its feet and get beyond re-treading the film’s storyline, however the “The Mortal Cup” was a startlingly shaky start profuse with flaws which did not leave me spellbound.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Kill Me Three Times (DVD Review)


15 – 97mins – 2014


THREE IS A TRAGIC NUMBER

Made two years ago but only now being released straight-to-DVD, this is a tricksy thriller with a blackly comedic streak. Simon Pegg (Star Trek into Darkness) leads an ensemble cast of lesser-known actors, playing the smarmy, moustachioed and wholly-unlikable hired gun Charlie Wolfe. He also acts as an omniscient narrator, recalling this tale of a bungled assignation as he lays bleeding to death.

The gimmick here, from which the title is derived, is that this is one murder attempt retold three times. Additional information, clues and buffoonery are leaked out with each retelling as more inept clowns are added into the mix, trying their luck for their own nefarious reasons at knocking off poor Alice Braga.

It all ends in a bloody mess on this tropical surfing paradise, bringing to mind the wry tone of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (2012), with incompetent individuals treating life and death far too blithely. Profuse on blood and bad language, this murder farce from rising directorial hotshot Kriv Red Dog Stenders has a cocky assuredness to its style, it’s just a pity it’s neither as clever or complex as the narrative concept wants you to believe.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars 

The Hateful Eight (Cinema Review)

18 – 2015 – 167mins


L0V3 1T 0R H8 IT?

I will openly confess that, although I have watched all of his films, I’m not a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I also actively dislike the “Western” genre. Controversial opinions, no doubt, but honest ones. So it’s fair to say that I was less than concerned when it transpired that due to a contractual breakdown, Cineworld (for which I own an Unlimited Card) would not be showing bum-numbing epic The Hateful Eight at any of their cinemas.

Nevertheless, a weekend visit to Norwich prompted a cinema trip, and my friend was – bizarrely – less than keen on a repeat viewing of The Force Awakens (madness!!), so I warily obliged to give QT’s latest a go at his local Odeon.

That’s right, I was paying to see a film I legitimately expected I would hate… Maybe I was glutton for punishment? In truth, I was just hoping to be proved wrong and have my eyes opened. Meanwhile, my mate – who watched a total of THREE Westerns that day! – was excited and optimistic for what he hoped would be another classic adult thrill-ride of witty dialogue and stylish direction from an auteur who never shies away from pulling punches.

A contracted three hours of lengthy character natter, tense exchanges at gun point, misogynistic behaviour and profuse racism (I’m not doing a very good job of selling this, am I?!), we exited the screen and exchanged verdicts… Surprisingly, my friend was less than impressed, caring little for the unlikeable ensemble of “hateful” personalities and cringing at their less-than-moral traits. He openly condemned it as his least favourite of Tarantino’s eight film cannon.

As for me, the QT-ambivalent, Western-avoider? I had an absolute blast!

*Stunned silence*

Yes, I will confess that the film is way too long. Some of the character-defining filler could easily have been given the chop and in no way effected the simple mystery plot, which sees eight less-than-noble strangers holed up in a roadside inn as a blizzard rages around them, their agendas and identities slowly revealed as time ticks by and the body count rises. But the snowstorm-savaged mountainous Wyoming locale and superb Ennio Morricone score (which has rightfully just won a Golden Globe) lent even the drawn out opening titles pitch-perfect ambience.

But what really sold the film to me was the performances. Yes, these are horrible people who do unforgivable things to each other – Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in particular, is treated like a ragdoll by John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), which is made only slightly less distasteful owing to the fact she is a murderer on her way to the noose – and to be trapped in confined surroundings with such lowlifes would be utter hell, but the top-notch cast embody these OTT renegades with unrestrained zeal.

Samuel L. Jackson clearly has a hoot as bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, his every line delivered with sparky, unrestrained confidence, while Tim Roth steals the show as bubbly English oddball Oswaldo Mobray (what a name!), who radiates eccentricity and had me finding it hard not to grin every time he opened his mouth.

I appreciate The Hateful Eight will not be to everyone’s taste. Owing to its setting just after the American Civil War, the “N” word is thrown about worryingly casually, while in spite of loooong periods of talky inactive, there are flashes of grotesque violence and profuse splashes of claret which will make even the toughest constitutions quiver. I can fully appreciate why this has not been as universally accepted as some of Tarantino’s most beloved films, but for a three hour Western to win me over, it must be doing SOMETHING right!!

So thank you to my mate, who I’m glad persuaded me to give this film a chance, because if he hadn’t, I would never have bothered to see it on the big screen, and I’m not sure if the cinematography or score would have looked or sounded anywhere near as majestic on DVD. I’m just sorry he didn’t enjoy it as much as I did.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The House on Cold Hill (Book Review)

Written by: Peter James, 2015
Published in the UK by: Macmillan
320 pages


WHO YA GONNA EMAIL?!

Although perhaps best known for his crime thriller series starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, my only prior exposure to the work of best-selling novelist Peter James is the unsettlingly surreal stand-alone Perfect People (2011), which leaves you on a jaw-dropping reveal.

For this reason, I was rather excited to dip into James’ straight-up horror oeuvre, which he recently expanded with the October publication of The House on Cold Hill. And what better time than Christmas for a ghost story?

Set in the titular Cold Hill House, a dilapidated Georgian manor in the sleepy Sussex countryside, we follow the amiable and optimistic young Harcourt family – website designer Ollie, professional wife Caro and Instagram-obsessed, dog-loving daughter Jade – who soon realise there is more than dry rot and financial heartache to worry about in their dream project home…

From the surprisingly brutal cold-open (which I had to re-read, so shocked was I at the fate which befell who I had wrongly assumed were the main characters!), James crafts a swift and pacey traditional ghost story. As sightings of spectral old women, shimmering orbs and long-dead neighbours ratchets up, I legitimately flitted between chills and goosebumps at almost a bi-chapter rate.

It is in presenting the more established and traditional aspects of the hauntings that The House on Cold Hill excels, while the modern accommodations (FaceTime sightings, slanderous ghost-written emails, disappearing photos from iCloud) do feel slightly crowbarred in to bring the action into the present day and appeal to a modern audience (even Breaking Bad and “Uptown Funk” get superfluous mentions).

Nevertheless, I was compelled to read on – often uttering the oft-detrimental phrase “just one more chapter…” – my enthusiasm heightened by the short, sharp sections and kinetic tempo. As the supernatural occurrences become more innovative and malevolent and the body count rises, I was seriously enjoying myself, to the point where – rather selfishly – I didn’t want the house’s horrors to be unearthed or the phenomena to cease.

When a resolution does arrive, in keeping with the rhythm of the novel it is rather sudden and out of the blue, and to a degree is somewhat anti-climactic, but it is also twisty and inventive enough to leave you questioning and wondering and itching to go back search for clues earlier on. To leave such an impression deems The House on Cold Hill a success – albeit one that isn’t without imperfections – and I would eagerly encourage all fans of the genre to check it out this winter.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, 1.1 (TV Review)

ITV – 3rd January – 60mins
Written by: James Dormer
Directed by: Jon East

POETIC LICENCE

Having studied Seamus Heaney’s Whitbread award-winning translation at University, and having recently rewatched Robert Zemeckis’ uncanny performance-captured 2007 feature film adaptation, I felt relatively well-versed going in to the first episode of ITV’s epic 13-part re-imagining of the classic Anglo Saxon poem.

But what quickly became apparent as I tuned in this past Sunday evening was how just as well prepared for Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands I would have been had I just binge-watched old episodes of Game of Thrones – for James Dormer, Tim Primeval Haines and Katie Newman’s fantasy adventure is just as indebted to the hit HBO show as it is to its source material! Did anyone else think they had sat on the remote and flicked over to Sky Atlantic when the copyright-skirtingly comparable opening credits began?

But as much as Beowulf strives to emulate GoT’s lavish production design, vast landscapes and silver screen-sheen (all of which it achieved, up to a point), this was still very much Sunday evening fare. We saw no more than the before and after of any sexual relations and the sword fighting was choppily edited so to imply more than it showed. The continuity announcer did issue a “scary scenes” warning pre-broadcast, but this was no doubt more to avoid another Jekyll & Hyde-style scheduling controversy rather than because the CGI “mudborns” – which looked like a cross between Caesar the ape and Gollum – were all that nightmare-inducing.

Indeed, the most controversial aspect of this series premiere was the liberties co-creator Dormer’s script took with the Old English legend. The basic premise is familiar – our returning warrior (Kieran Bew) takes up arms to save his home from the threat of the monstrous Grendel – but the specifics of the location have been blurred from Scandinavia to the titular “Shieldlands”, while a deeper relationship between the banished Beowulf and the family of deceased King Hrothgar (William Hurt) was established so to embellish the human drama and justify a lengthier series run.

On the performance front, Bew will make for an interesting lead, given his less-than-dashing coarseness, while the inclusion of a sarcastic sidekick in Abrican (Elliot Cowan) may not have been such an unnecessary embellishment were it not for the actor’s uncharismatic delivery. Eragon star Ed Speleers, meanwhile, does perhaps overegg his sneering snideness as the Queen’s jealous son. He also looks a little young to be of similar same to Beowulf, as a multitude of flashbacks substantiated.

Return to the Shieldlands may never be as glossy or epic as the classics it is vying to compete with, but it has established itself as a plucky and trying underdog. The action sequences were decent – in particular an opening beach chase which ended with a beastie taking an axe to the head (the sole graphic concession) – and the Northumberland locales felt believably luscious and “lived in” – even when aided by CGI. Mist-shrouded woodland was an especially atmospheric choice for a third act showdown, while the deserted land of the giants was magnificently rendered and brought to mind the Mines of Moria from The Lord of the Rings.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars