Star Wars: Headspace (Album Review)

Release date: February 19th 2016 (Digital), March 18th (CD)

Label: Hollywood Records


 

DARTH PUNK

While the electro-rocking helmet-wearing duo from France have long brought some shiny sci-fi sensibilities to the dancefloor, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who felt that what the contemporary music scene was missing was an injection of space opera. But in yet another example of how ever-present Star Wars has become in modern society, that is exactly what we get with new club-friendly compilation Star Wars: Headspace.

What sounds like an underground mixtape cobbled together in some obsessive fan boy’s bedroom is actually a fully-licenced album endorsed by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot. Those concerned that this is no more than John William’s iconic orchestral score sped up and set to a synthesized drum beat need fear not, as Headspace contains 15 all-new compositions written and performed by such accomplished disc-jockeys as Röyksopp (pictured below), Bonobo, Rustie and Breakbot, and co-executive produced by industry supremo Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C.).

True, the results are a mixed bag, but the majority veer on the decent and endearing side of experimental. Album opener “C-3PO’s Plight” by Kascade was clearly chosen to lead the pack due to its Bespin-high quality – mixing a summery, piano-led vibe with scant interpolations of goldenrod’s dialogue. Track 2, “Help Me!” by GTA is the closest offender to cheesily derivative, sounding mightily reminiscent of an Imperial March remix.

Track 6, “R2 Knows” by Claude VonStroke deserves special mention due to its extravagant robot rap by Barry Drift, which recounts an often cheeky summary of the original trilogy to music (let’s just say they broach the controversial topic of who shot first). The first time I heard it I winced in embarrassment, but a couple of listens later and I was gleefully chanting along with its catchy rhyming couplets!

A number of artists mine the same popular samples, so Darth Vader’s breathing and Leia’s “Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” line are oft-repeated, while certain elements such as alarm and siren calls become noticeable in their over-use, but Headspace is not the absurd laughing stock it could so easily have been. Audacious, trippy and a lot of fun, I can well imagine Ponda Baba twerking the night away in the Mos Eisley Cantina to “Scruffy-Looking Nerfherder”.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

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Captain America: Civil War (Cinema Review)

12A – 147mins – 2016


 

WHERE DOES THE BUCK-Y STOP?

Armageddon and Deep Impact in 1998; The Descent and The Cave in 2005; The Prestige and The Illusionist in 2006 – Hollywood has a quirky knack for throwing up two cannily-comparable films at the same time. So it is again in 2016 with the third Captain America adventure arriving just a month after comic-book rival Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice covered spookily similar narrative ground.

It was inevitable, really, what with DC Comics desperate to follow the bankable Marvel mould and set up a Justice League universe akin to the MCU, and with the once frivolous cape ‘n’ cowl genre now mining more cerebral storylines in an effort to bring their politics and pathos in line with their out-of-this-world fights and FX.

Clearly everyone likes a bit of healthy competition, from film studio bigwigs to men in tights. In Civil War, directed once more by the Russo Brothers, the great and the good of Marvel Comics’ superhero cannon are pitted against one another when their position on how they fit into humanity’s system of law is thrown into dispute.

While BvS let the diplomatic dealings quietly die in the background as the spectacle took centre stage, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s CW script does a better job of having the ructious plot run throughout its protracted runtime: should the Avengers with their inhuman abilities and city-flattening technology have the right to freely enter into dangerous and life-threatening situations without government oversight?

The catalyst for this quandary is the frequent infrastructure and collateral damage which follows in the super-team’s wake (we’ve all seen them contentedly chow down on shawarma following the rubble-heavy climax to Avengers Assemble), most recently the accidental bombing of a building in Nigeria as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) et al set about stopping the theft of a biological weapon.

But while iron-suited billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), guilt-ridden over his role in creating Ultron in 2014’s average Avengers sequel, fully supports government sanctions to keep the team inside the law, Steve rejects such restrictions in his ongoing fight for justice. In refusing to sign the bill designated the Sokovia Accords, the Avengers are split and comrades become rivals.

“We’re still friends, right?”

“Depends how hard you hit me.”

Essentially, by breaking free from the Accords and following his own ethical path, Captain America and those that follow him are deemed criminal vigilantes who need to be apprehended. Except you never really get a sense of actual disapproval from either side of the fence. While the Dark Knight was full of solemn snarling in his outrage at Superman’s destructive approach in Dawn of Justice, Civil War still sees the contentious chums bantering and pulling their punches while supposedly fighting tooth and nail for what they believe in.

Picking up on character threads from The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier (2014), the aged Peggy Carter’s plot is resolved without her being on screen, while H.Y.D.R.A.’s revival of Steve’s old WWII friend “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is the clincher in Steve’s decision to not follow the government act. These elements aside, Civil War always feels more like a sequel to Age of Ultron than it does a third Cap film – it stars a vast, A-list ensemble cast gathered from an already grand 13-film sequence, which is only growing larger with every passing year and box office smash.

This is not the film to start your Marvel journey on! But unlike other epic-lengthed blockbusters with ballooning casts grappling for attention, Civil War never feels unwieldy. It also manages to never lose narrative focus or have needlessly digressive or ponderous dips in the action, keeping you alert and attentive until after the second end credits sequence.

The much-publicised new recruits threaten to steal the show, with the vengeful Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another new Spider-Man (in the form of amiable high school quipper Tom Holland) granted far more screen time than I ever imagined, successfully getting their feet under the Marvel table in a thrilling mid-film airport smackdown. Even more surprising is that it is Iron Man who is dealt the film’s emotional sucker-punch at the crescendo, serving to further push Steve Rogers from the spotlight in his own film.

But such observations are incidental and never detract from either the narrative or the action. On both of those scores, Captain America: Civil War is an out-and-out success, balancing character-shaping story development with sly humour and witty references, sensitive insights, shocking surprises and grand scale, globe-hopping, heart-pumping adventure. It’s not as uniquely uproarious as Deadpool, but it will better reverberate with all demographics. Thor and Hulk will be sorry they missed this wild ride, while DC Comics will be outright jealous.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The Good Dinosaur (DVD Review)

PG – 88mins – 2015


 

THE STOCK WORLD: JURASSIC LARK

Runt of the litter Apatosaurus Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is continually overshadowed by his more-capable siblings. Determined to teach his timid son a valuable life lesson, Arlo’s farmer father, Henry (Jeffrey Wright), is tragically swept out to sea when a flash flood hits the pair while they are out tracking a feral caveboy (Jack Bright) Arlo let go free.

Burdened by the loss of his poppa and blaming the Neanderthal “critter” for the accident, Arlo finds himself lost in the wilderness far from home. Struggling to cope on his own, Arlo soon discovers that friends come in the most unusual forms, and the unlikely allies join forces to reunite Arlo with his family.

“You gotta get over your fear, Arlo, or you won’t survive out here.”

I think I may have just watched Pixar’s most middle of the road offering to date. While The Good Dinosaur never left me as cold as Cars (2006), at least John Lasseter’s anthropomorphised automobile adventure went to the pains of realising an entire human-less universe for Lightening McQueen to race around. In comparison, The Good Dinosaur feels lazy, like a derivative composite of far more groundbreaking works: The Lion King set in the Croods-iverse.

The influence of the Jurassic Park franchise is also shamelessly blatant, with a “rustlers” in the long grass sequence, and a set-piece where Arlo and his now-christened chum, Spot, must hide behind a log to keep safe from a charging herd while T-Rexes orchestrate their dominance in the background.

An unhinged, hippy-like Styracosaurus (voiced by director Peter Sohn) made for a humorously distinctive diversion along the way, but this ingenuity is undermined later on when the storm-chasing pterodactyl Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) is just as wacky and untrustworthy in characterisation. A “cloud sharks” moment towards the end of the film was a nice visual touch, but feels like too little too late, while a beautiful night-time firefly swarm was seen before in Brave‘s haunting will o’ the wisp lighting effect.

Speaking of aesthetics, The Good Dinosaur is Pixar doing what Pixar does best – the uncultivated, natural landscapes look breathtakingly terrific and I don’t think CG-animated water has ever looked so fluid or real. The blocky character designs, however, detract from the intricate details, overriding the depth-defining textures with a cartoony simplicity. As more big-eyed, colourful creatures crop up on Arlo’s journey, the Croods comparison in the design brief becomes ever-more obvious.

Yes, there is character-building along the way as our determined underdog learns to stand on his own four feet and “make his mark” in the big wild word, and yes, there is a tear-summoning emotional underpinning at the close, but for all its other concessions to exceptional (some, no doubt, due to a bumpy production process which saw compound rewrites and a change of director late on), The Good Dinosaur is just that – and we have come to expect a lot more than merely ‘good’ from Pixar.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Cinema Review)

12A – 117mins – 2016


 

MIRROR EARTH

Tolkien meets Frozen in this gritty, teen-targeted, action-heavy Kristen Stewart-less swearytale spin-off from 2012’s Snow White & the Huntsman. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor on the first film, makes his directorial debut, promoted after Rupert Sanders’ well publicised extramarital scandal with K-Stew.

Initially planned as a prequel to avoid explaining Snow White’s absence, Winter’s War is actually both an origin story for Chris Thor Hemsworth’s axe-handy Eric and a sequel, with the action skipping seven years and enveloping the previous films’ events.

Welcomely narrated by Liam Neeson’s assuring tones, we are re-introduced to a pre-death sorceress Ravenna (the returning Charlize Theron) and her fairer sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who is involved in an illicit liaison with Merlin’s Colin Morgan. When Freya discovers Morgan’s Duke has murdered their child, grief brings her long-suppressed magical powers to the fore, and the Ice Queen is born.

Setting up her own kingdom in the North, Freya begins recruiting children to form a hardened army of cold-hearted huntsmen. When her two best warriors, Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain), fall in love, Freya furiously forces Eric to watch as Sara is slain behind a wall of ice, before Eric’s unconscious body is thrown into the water…

Seven years (and a box office hit) later and a still-grieving Eric is recruited by Snow White’s husband, King William (Sam Claflin, who all-but cameos) to locate the shiny menace that is the Magic Mirror, which was stolen while being transported to “Sanctuary”, after it made the bed-bound Queen ill (handy, that).

Plucky dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) returns, accompanied by his humorously mouthy kin, Gryff (Rob Brydon), to aid Eric in his quest, which sees the unlikely trio reunited with a not-dead Sara (shocker!), battle goblins, team up with she-dwarfs (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach), survive countless ambushes and confront Freya in a climatic battle in her Ice Palace to ensure the sort-after MacGuffin doesn’t fall into the wrong hands all over again.

With a mission which sees our motley band of heroes cross kingdoms, we are treated to a plethora of sumptuous fantasy landscapes and creatures both fair and foul, granting Winter’s War an expansive, large scale feel. Similarly, the expanding cast are all worthy additions to this Grimm world, ranging from empowering (Chastain), to domineering (Blunt) and cheeky (Brydon), and yet, they all fail to distract from the Kristen Stewart-shaped elephant missing from the throne room…

This is a follow up motivated by money and sadly defined by the loss of its star, with Snow White frequently referenced but never seen (aside from one clip, shot from behind, which was clearly an extra), with the biggest offence coming when Freya asks the Magic Mirror that most fateful question. As a golden figure is summoned forth and gradually forms before our eyes, the camera purposefully avoids showing Ravenna’s resurrected face until the last possible moment, playing with the audience’s expectations of who the fairest of them all really is, before shattering the illusion into a thousand anti-climatic shards.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

V/H/S Viral (DVD Review)

15 – 77mins – 2014


 

AB-NORMAL TRACKING

“Make sure you’re in focus!”

This stunted second sequel to the Bloody Disgusting-championed horror anthology from “The Collective” of emerging genre directors features another three found footage short films interlaced with a fourth wrap-around story which attempts to tie them all together. According to Wikipedia, a fifth was apparently commissioned but ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Sadly, this try-hard threequel diverts from the more cleanly-structured set-up of its predecessors in favour of a narratively-uncoordinated mash-up of found footage video nasties seemingly condemning the phone-obsessed mentality of the very audience the series is striving to appeal to.

With the police chasing down an errant ice cream truck, generation YouTube-r Kevin (Patrick Lawrie) is desperate to film the scandal for his five minutes of online fame, but just as the action is heating up, we are thrown – via some truly intrusive and painfully overused “retro” tracking effects – into Gregg Bishop’s completely unrelated story about “Dante the Great”, a modern stage magician (Justin Welborn) who uses Houdini’s infamous cloak for his nefarious gain.

A headache-inducing deluge of shaky-cam sources (all of which post-date the beloved eponymous medium and some of which seem to defy the laws of the found footage genre) are compiled into this schizophrenically-edited treasury of tasteless vulgarity. A random cut away during Marcel Sarmiento’s framing narrative “Vicious Circles” sees a Mexican house party descend into a forking bloodbath – but yet-more tracking issues and oh-so-convenient white noise mean we miss all but the aftermath!

Nacho Vigalondo’s mirror universe-exploring “Parallel Monsters” begins to subtlety uncover divergent religious beliefs with snuff films and bizarre sexual ceremonies panicking intruding inventor Alfonso (Gustavo Salmeron). Despite initially appearing to be the most sedate story, it disappointingly jumps the shark into outlandish alien territory just to flash some muppet-like demonic genitalia! Pity.

Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s “Bonestorm” segment sees skateboarding teens come under siege from a satanic cult in Tijuana. It is possibly the most effective strand due to the creepiness of seemingly insignificant robed figures cropping up in the background before the extremity of the battle explodes into life, however it takes forever to set up the main event with expendable Jackass japery, and it finishes before the promised ‘big bad’ is even shown.

So disorientating and wildly incohesive is V/H/S Viral’s slapdash patchwork that it really should come with an epilepsy warning! If the bloodthirsty audience aren’t already put off by this or the anti-climactic conclusions to the promising story concepts, then the lazy climactic jab at big brother culture will surely have people reaching for the eject button, condemning this once innovative horror series to the same demise as its outdated namesake.

CR@B Verdict: 1 star

Aaaaaaaah! (Blu-ray Review)

18 – 79mins – 2014


 

MONKEYING AROUND

With a title which handily doubles up as a review of the film, Aaaaaaaah! is the uncompromising brainchild of Sightseers star Steve Oram, who writes, directs and stars in this lo-fi quasi-horror satire on what would happen if man’s innate nature rose to the fore. The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, as well as a glut of other familiar faces, all pop up along the way to shed their dignity and go bananas in publicity-boosting roles.

Filmed in 2014 but only seeing release via the “Frightfest Presents” banner this past January, it’s not difficult to see why this brave/experimental cult status-destined statement on society struggled to find a distributor: even at a brisk 79 minutes it is a trying and perplexing watch.

Set in a surreal alternative universe (or it could be a post-apocalypse dystopia, this is never established) where humans have devolved to tree-humping, shit-slinging, ape-like savages, yet still wear clothes, drive cars, watch TV and live in houses, the film doesn’t take long to boggle your perception of reality, with alpha-male Smith (Oram) pissing on a wedding photo of his wife, before his beta, Keith (Fielding’s frequent collaborator Tom Meeten), obediently wipes his dick.

With dialogue completely replaced by primal grunts, we are forced to gawp in bewilderment at the often disgusting behaviour of these recognised faces, with Toyah Wilcox (seriously!) gamely dry-humping a cabinet, sticking her head in a microwave and being unceremoniously pelted with the dinner she has just made for her animalistic beau (Green Wing’s Julian Rhind-Tutt).

Violent, vulgar and often explicitly sexual (monkey’s masturbate a lot, see), this isn’t for the squeamish, easily offended or swiftly bored. Society is debased through acts of uncouth depravity (thieving, infidelity, abuse, gang war), but for all its perceived immorality, it’s all thoughtless and done without malice, simply to scoff, sleep, sex and survive – there are no ape expectations here.

With this outlandish scenario expanded beyond the everyday family dynamic to showcase examples of this society’s idea of sitcoms, cartoons, cookery shows (if you thought Nigella flaunted her cleavage, you ain’t seen nothing yet!) and video games, Aaaaaaaah! is a complete vision, but distractingly inconsistent. So mankind has evolved enough to make toilets and cutlery, yet people still shit on the kitchen floor and eat like savages? Likewise, how is it that cocaine exists as a recreational drug if people don’t know how to use it?

Props to Steve Oram for seeing his surreal concept through, it’s certainly a unique and unpredictable experience – not to mention a frightful prospect – and it marks him out as a filmmaker to look out for. However, as a piece of entertainment, his divisive debut feature is just too frustratingly uncanny to be devoured in one sitting – or maybe I’m just too much of a Neanderthal to appreciate it?

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Bill (DVD Review)

PG – 90mins – 2015


 

THE COMEDY OF PRETENDERS

TV’s troupe of Horrible Histor-ians bring their irreverent-but-informative interpretations of the past to the big screen in this bard-y hilarious fictionalised take on William Shakespeare’s big break onto the sixteenth century showbiz scene, co-written and directed by Richard Bracewell.

The Wrong Mans’ Matthew Baynton plays the world’s most renowned playwright as a fame-hungry, marginally deluded young man of many talents but master of none (yet). Kicked out of his band, “Mortal Coil”, after one too many spotlight-stealing lute solos, Bill sets off to London in search of fame and fortune as a writer, leaving his wife (Martha Howe-Douglas) and kids behind in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“Bill, you’re not a writer… it’s just another fad!”

Unbeknownst to the hapless Bill, who is overjoyed when the Earl of Croydon (Simon Top Coppers Farnaby) offers to put on his play as the centrepiece of a royal summit, he is actually aiding an assassination plot on Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCrory) by the Spanish King, Philip II (Ben Willbond), who wants the English throne for himself.

“[Writing a play] is just talking, but written down… this is easy!”

Bringing an exuberance to the script, there is an added theatricality in having the CBBC comedians perform multiple roles (“One man in his time plays many parts”). Bill often feels like a bunch of bantering mates playing dress up and having a riot doing it, irrespective of whether the audience laugh or not. Fortunately we do – and often – for the often frivolous humour is actually astutely clever, combining observational comedy, repeated callbacks and witty word play with farce at a sketch-like pace.

“Just a salad that needs addressing

From anachronistic off-hand comments about cameos and customs officers to musical numbers, lute-backed writing montages, “your mum” jokes and even Star Wars references, Bill offers something for everyone in the family to chuckle at. Mild innuendo and mentions of prostitutes and whores shocked me (this is a PG aimed at a young audience, after all), but it is relevant to the time period and never crude or unnecessarily explicit. Plus, parents will feel catered for.

By its very nature of being a period piece variety show, Bill will inevitably draw comparisons to Monty Python – and with scenes involving Trojan horses, coconuts and “Bring out your dead!” carts, you can’t help but feel like they are dothing their caps to their comedic predecessors. Such ostentatious bravery is to be commended, for this self-aware, tongue-in-cheek but respectful alternative history lesson makes what could be a dense and dull scholarly subject into an accessible piece of first-rate entertainment – and we could always do with more of that.

Encore!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars