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      21.02.2011 08:20
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      The fourth film in the series

      This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation.

      Note that this is the fourth film in the Resident Evil franchise. The review contains no spoilers for this film (Afterlife) but may refer to events from the previous three films.

      ==The Story==

      In a secret military installation deep beneath the centre of Tokyo, The Umbrella Corporation continues its top-secret research into the virus that has ravaged mankind. Whilst most of the world's human population has been transformed into bloodthirsty zombies, the Corporation continues to investigate ways in which the so-called T-Virus can be used to its advantage. An unknown assailant systematically wipes out sentries positioned on the surface and a major security incident takes place when the installation finds itself under attack. Alice Abernathy, a former employee of the corporation and survivor of the T-Virus, wants revenge.

      Some time later, Alice finds herself alone again in the wilderness. Following the messages previously shared with her fellow road trippers, she makes her way to Alaska in the hope that she will be able to join other survivors. There, she meets up with Claire Redfield. Claire is suffering from some kind of amnesia and is unable to say where the other survivors are but it's clear they aren't in Alaska so Alice takes to the skies once again to see if she and Claire can find the mysterious haven known only as Arcadia. But she is ill prepared for what she finds along the way....

      ==Resident Franchise==

      Afterlife is now the fourth film in a franchise that many fans believe should never really have been started in the first place. Adaptations of popular console games are notoriously unpopular with film audiences, often with preconceptions of what the film should be like. Fans are normally disappointed with the output, and the box office is littered with commercial failures as film after film (Tomb Raider, Doom, Max Payne) is adapted only to flop at the cinema. The Resident Evil films have never exactly garnered critical acclaim, but the combination of relentless enthusiasm from writer/director Paul W S Anderson and a growing, cult-like following has ensured that the franchise is now easily the most successful game to film development.

      All the films have borrowed elements from the gaming series, which itself is one of the most prolific in the world. There are thus far eleven instalments in the game series and Afterlife loosely incorporate elements of Resident Evil 5, which, despite its title, is actually the tenth game in the series. Since the original film, however, the stories have moved further away from the games, with Anderson generally developing the lead character Alice in new ways. Resident Evil 5, for example, doesn't actually feature the character of Alice, but the films' success has partly been down to the popularity and enduring charisma of Milla Jovovich in the leading role.

      ==Resident Narrative==

      The fourth film carries on in much the same vein as the third film. Films one and two focused on a fairly intimate storyline restricted to few locations and a core storyline. The third film started to grow the scope of the tale further and, notably, started to transform Alice into something of a super hero, notably at the end of the film. Afterlife continues pretty much where the third film ends but Anderson has written in a plot development that undoes much of the narrative in the third film for reasons that bring the franchise a little more in line with the first two films. This is probably a good idea. The 'Alice super-hero' concept started to make things a little too easy for the writers, because they could pretty much conjure up any scenario they liked and Alice would be able to get away with it.

      This side of Alice goes out with a bang, in a pretty gripping opening sequence that is out of sorts with most of the rest of the film. It's certainly exciting and dramatic, but Anderson seems to have stolen many ideas from other films, notably The Matrix, and it's therefore quite refreshing when this segment closes and the audience gets back to the Resident Evil they know and love. Paul W S Anderson is one of those writers whose work you either appreciate as a guilty pleasure or you avoid like the plague and Afterlife is a perfect example why. The narrative for the film is seldom dull for sure, but seems inspired by countless other films, likening Anderson's imagination to a teenaged boy who seems intent on stuffing every possible thing into the story that he can.

      What that means is that, fundamentally, Afterlife feels as though it was pretty much made up as the crew went along. You can almost here some over enthusiastic cameraman shouting 'wouldn't it be cool if a huge, mutated executioner guy rolled up wielding an axe' followed by a rousing 'yeah dude!' As such things happen and things crop up that make you feel as though that's exactly what happened, and it's something the audience will either love or loathe. It's also clear that Anderson has his eye on the franchise overall, rather than just one particular movie. Whereas the first film could have ended there and then, now, rather like the Saw movies, the story is peppered with events and concepts that seem to point to what might happen in the next film rather than the current one. This is something that plays well to the fan boys, who love guessing and predicting what things might mean, but to anyone new to the franchise, it can be a little alienating.

      The Resident Evil films are certainly no longer zombie horror films, if they ever really were. These are now sci-fi action films, stuffed full of fun but ridiculous stunts and a constant battle against the odds for Alice and her friends to survive. The presence of the Umbrella Corporation is starting to become a burden on the franchise, however, as the company seems to have become increasingly corrupt for reasons that never seem particularly clear. It was feasible, in film three, that the Corporation might have been looking for ways to control the undead. It's now pretty uncertain exactly what they are up to, other than no good.

      ==Resident Visuals==

      Afterlife is the first film in the franchise to be shown in 3D. The DVD version is the standard 3D version, although it's pretty obvious to see where the 3D effects would have come in to play. The need to have things coming out of the screen in pretty much every action scene is kind of obvious but seems a little gratuitous. The visuals are otherwise pretty good here. The effects aren't on the level that will make jaws drop, but the snappy pace and dazzling approach to action works pretty well and allows the makers to paper over some of the obvious technical cracks in the whole thing. It does, however, rip an awful lot from The Matrix movies, right down to people dodging bullets and a bad guy that wears dark glasses and sneers a lot. This really undermines the impact of the whole thing. It's such a blatant imitation of The Matrix that anybody watching this will immediately just sneer and think it's a rip off.

      There's less gore and nastiness taking place now, shifting the film away from its horror routes. A new kind of zombie has limited effect, again because we've seen it all before in countless other movies and there seems to be a diminishing fondness for the zombie genre as a whole. Nonetheless, it's certainly an exciting film to look at, full of expansive locations and dramatic views. There's a risk that with so many computer-generated effects, the film could start to feel like an animation but Anderson just about keeps things the right side of this.

      Nonetheless, there are some great touches here. Alice's personal preference to use quarters as ammunition in her shotgun leads to some every effective slaughter and there's a great scene where she leads a horde of zombies off the top of a building. It's all pretty daft but that's nothing new to this franchise and it's all enormous fun too.

      ==Resident Characters==

      It has to be the said that as Angelina Jolie was perfect for Tomb Raider, Milla Jovovich seems pretty much born to play the role of Alice. It's really about the way she looks and moves as opposed to anything else, because when she's require to 'act' she is still definitely lacking. But Alice is a character that fans of the franchise have grown to truly love, and Jovovich is integral to this in every way. As ever, she has a stylish wardrobe and plenty of cool moves to go with it and she seems to ooze screen presence. Put simply, Jovovich dominates the film from start to finish. These are films about Alice. It helps that Jovovich does nearly all her own stunts and moves. That makes the character far more inspiring.

      Otherwise Afterlife is a bit of a mixed bag. It's kind of difficult to see why the casting team thought that putting Wentworth Miller in as a prisoner that can help the crew escape from a prison was ever going to be a good idea, but that's exactly what they've done. Initially promising something a little different, Miller quickly reverts to type and this is really just a retread of his role in Prison Break. Boris Kodjoe looks fine as newcomer Luther and the continual prominence of his character in the film seems to suggest that there's more to come. He's likeable enough but ultimately rather superficial. Ali Larter further strengthens her capacity to be the new Alice, and you do wonder whether her character is here to play substitute for Alice on the basis that if Jovovich ever decides to call it a day, she can easily step into the shoes. She's pretty good, in fairness, if not a little wasted.

      Speaking of which, the film's biggest misfire is the casting of the hunk of loveliness that is Shawn Roberts as Matrix rip-off bad guy Albert Wesker. Wesker was a reasonably small character in the third film and shifts to more prominence here with Roberts picking up the role for the first time. He's truly awful. It's difficult to establish whether this is down to Roberts or the director but it really is impossible to take him seriously for a second.

      ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

      The region 2 DVD comes with just the 2D version of the film. Home viewers looking to get a copy of the film in 3D will need to get the Blu-Ray. In fact, this is probably a film that will always look that bit better in high definition, simply because it's so stuffed full of dramatic visuals and effects. It looks pretty good on DVD it must be said. The picture is sharp and full of impact, even if it does occasionally look more like a computer game. Likewise, the soundtrack is booming and raucous, fairly exploding out of the woofer and rumbling around the room. This isn't a film where subtlety is or can be appreciated in any way but the ballsy nature of the whole thing is kind of appealing.

      The special features here are reasonable enough but rather superficial.

      Fighting Back: The Action of Afterlife - a fairly brisk five-minute featurette with clips and interviews focused on the action in the film. It's short on insight (Milla tells us that it's hard work and gruelling - no way!) but in some ways the brevity works here. The clips show how some of the tricks were done in a way that other features would have taken five times as long to show.

      Band of Survivors: Casting Afterlife - another reasonably short featurette of around six minutes. It's all put together in much the same way as the previous feature but is, perhaps, a little more sycophantic about Jovovich. It's not very interesting, for sure.

      Director's commentary - Paul W S Anderson is unquestionably enthusiastic and talks with conviction about the film. It's not really a film that lends itself to a commentary but he makes it more interesting than many others would have done.

      Resident Evil: Damnation Teaser Trailer - Damnation is the second animated feature following Degeneration. Having the teaser trailer is a nice touch and the movie looks good. Damnation will also be released in 3D.

      ==Resident PlipPlop Says==

      Afterlife is easy viewing. The ballsy effects and relentless approach engenders forgiveness for the 'male it up as you go along' plot and Jovovich is excellent. This is never going to win fans over to the franchise but with a fifth one to follow, it's clear that it already has enough followers anyway.

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      • The Last Exorcism (DVD) / DVD / 84 Readings / 79 Ratings
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        17.01.2011 16:26
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        Do you believe?

        The Reverend Cotton Marcus is a revered preacher. Worshipped by his congregation, Marcus is a showman, stuffing his sermons full of tricks and illusions to astound and enthral his willing audience. But Marcus isn't as devout as his sermons might suggest. Troubled by his experiences of the Church, Marcus remains sceptical about many if his congregation's beliefs and to that end, he agrees to allow a camera crew film his work. One of Marcus's most popular and controversial activities is his work as an exorcist. Following in his father's footsteps, Marcus regularly visits troubled souls and 'exorcises' them using little more than parlour tricks. He justifies this on the basis that it is doing some good, but understands the very real dangers of the work and decides to give it up. The camera crew will film his last exorcism as he exposes it all as a sham.

        A letter from a Louisiana farmer is selected to be the recipient of Marcus's final exorcism. The man reports that his cattle are being slaughtered and that he believes his daughter to be possessed by a demon. With the camera crew in tow, Marcus drives out to the depths of Louisiana; an area that he admits is rich in superstition and religious zealots. At the farm he meets Louis Sweetzer and his daughter Nell. Although Marcus goes along with the request for an exorcism, he does not believe for one second that the girl is actually possessed. Nonetheless, it soon becomes very clear that there is something deeply wrong with Nell Sweetzer...

        ==Demons Begone==

        In 1973, a horror film was released which has been widely revered ever since. A product of its era, The Exorcism shocked audiences with its portrayal of horrific demonic possession and many people still refuse to watch the film nearly forty years later. Curiously, it remains one of those films that modern studios seem reluctant to remake, opting instead for occasional returns to the concept of exorcism. Comparisons to the original are largely inevitable, but every writer tries a different turn of events. In some films, there are possessions that turn out to be something rather more earthly. In others, there are fake possessions that turn out to be quite real. In The Last Exorcism there is, well, that would be telling.

        The 'gimmick' here (if that's the right word) is that this is a fake documentary, filmed through a hand-held camera. It's less shaky and amateurish than other films employing the technique and rightly so given that we're expected to believe that it's a professional cameraman behind the lens. What is odd, however (and liable to criticism from many quarters) is that the scenario is slightly half-hearted. It's edited and polished in such a way that wouldn't have been possible given the narrative's ultimate conclusion. It also features a musical soundtrack, which is almost a no-no in the genre. Handheld camera films don't feature music. It's part of the concept. We're supposed to believe that they're raw and unpolished. The Last Exorcism is, therefore, a very strange combination of styles - a sort of well-produced but slightly amateurish production with an identity crisis. That is, however, the least of its problems.

        ==Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That==

        The premise of The Last Exorcism is to keep you guessing. In this, it is almost entirely successful up until the final credits roll. Marcus doesn't believe any of what he is saying for one minute and as he embarks on his journey, it seems pretty obvious that the film is going to set him up against his first exorcism where there is something demonic going on after all. Thereafter, it's very much a game of 'is she or isn't she?' as the plot lurches from one conclusion to the next, keeping the audience on its toes and, theoretically, the edges of its seat. The trouble is that it's such an obvious game that it kind of wears a bit thin. The writers would almost certainly have been far better off deciding on one course of action and then gradually building up to one revelation. Instead, they decide to play games, taking us down each route multiple times until the whole thing veers off wildly into a new direction.

        This could have been intriguing and exciting but the issue is that it's actually very misleading. For a relatively short film (about an hour and twenty-five minutes) it all takes quite a while to get going and when it does, the tension and intrigue tends to get shattered quite quickly when the narrative lurches in another direction. There's one central section that works quite well (largely because we're led in one distinctly creepy direction) but the fact is that the audience never really gets what it came for. Why's that deceptive? Well, the cover art on the DVD is deceptive. The description on the back is deceptive. The trailer features clips that don't appear in the film and is deceptive. It's all deceptive. It could have been clever. But it's not.

        ==Stamm-ered==

        German director Daniel Stamm has a few interesting ideas up his sleeve, but only a few. Indeed, the handheld camera style probably disrupts the overall tone here more than anything. It can work very well. A film like Paranormal Activity, for example, creates a sense of intrigue and fear more through what it doesn't show the audience than what it does. Exhibit A works to a similar premise, actually incorporating the camera into the action in a horrific and intimate way that feels very purposeful. The Last Exorcism is rather clumsy. During one particularly crucial scene, the cameraman opts to look everywhere except at the one place that anybody in his/her right mind would be looking.

        Conversely, there's a particularly good segment where the genre works to its own advantages. Whilst the cameraman sleeps, his lens falls into rather more sinister hands, with terrifying results. It's this kind of innovation that shows promise that is sadly otherwise overlooked. If Stamm wants to learn how to do 'handheld horror' properly, he should probably take a look at Spanish horror [Rec].

        The writing works reasonably well here. Marcus's insistence that there is always a natural explanation for every phenomenon is a useful narrative tool here as it continually works for him, then against him and so on. His motivations remain unambiguous and the decision not to portray him as a superficial, cut throat charlatan is vital to the coherence of the plot. The Last Exorcism is certainly better in its earlier scenes, where subtlety and restraint play a bigger part and before it all goes completely bonkers. When it's not quite clear what's going on, there's a sense of eeriness about it, but the audience just knows that, sooner or later, the rug is going to be pulled out from under its feet. Knowing that's coming kind of spoils the whole thing.

        ==The Cast==

        The small, intimate cast relies on strong performances and, fortunately, doesn't go lacking.

        Patrick Fabian is excellent as Cotton Marcus. He's not just a superficial evangelist, saying one thing and thinking another. Fabian brings out the conflict within the man, making him likeable and natural without turning him into some kind of wicked caricature. In the church, as he preaches, Fabian is absolutely compelling and completely believable, but it's his natural demeanour throughout the rest of the film that is the most convincing. Above all, Fabian makes him interesting. The audience feels as though this is a character that they want to understand better, which probably stops a lot of people from baling out halfway through.

        Ashley Bell is competent enough as disturbed teenager Nell Sweetzer. This is one of those roles where contrast is vital so, of course, when we first meet Nell, she is sweet natured and demure to the extreme, simply so that she will appear particularly revolting when the nastiness comes. Bell is perfectly capable in this, but it all now seems a little obvious. Indeed, her father, played by Louise Herthum, is probably a more compelling character. Herthum captures his character's grief and bewilderment rather well and, rather like Marcus, he isn't portrayed as a hysterical religious lunatic.

        ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

        You might expect that there would be a rather washed-out look to The Last Exorcism but actually it's very sharp and polished. This doesn't help maintain the authenticity of the style as it's actually *too* polished to be convincing. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and has plenty of range such that the audience is immersed into what's happening. The intimacy of handheld camerawork takes particular advantage of this, with all manner of creepy goings on in the dark.

        One of the film's producers was Eli Roth, who tends to get terribly excited about things that don't warrant it (usually his films). What that means is that The Last Exorcism comes with an interesting range of special features. Even the main menu is quite curious, depicting a slightly grotesque moving image of the girl on the front cover.

        Feature introduction - There are two versions of the film, one with an introduction and one without. The introduction is utterly pointless. It's basically Eli Roth saying that he hopes you like the film. Whuh?

        Audio commentaries - There are three commentaries, which is probably an excessive amount by anyone's standards. That aside, they do offer three varying perspectives. The first commentary comes from three of the producers and, given that one of them is Eli Roth, it will come as no surprise that it's a little over-excited. The second features the director and three of the stars. This one is marginally more insightful, if not slightly dull. The third is perhaps the most interesting, as it features a commentary from a haunting victim, a deliverance minister and a psychologist observing events from their own points of view. It's almost worth watching the film again for this one. Almost.

        The Devil You Know - This is your standard 'making of' feature although it is rather more enthusiastic than most. The director, writer and producers all make claims about the content that many viewers would disagree with but it's quite interesting to hear what they *thought* they were doing.

        Real Stories of Exorcism - This is an extra that purports to include real demonic voices. The DVD includes a 'protection prayer', which you are advised to recite before listening to the recording. Make of that what you will. In fairness, this is an entirely appropriate addition to the package, as it helps build on the sense that this is all 'real'. It's of limited interest on its own, though.

        Interview with director and lead star - a ten-minute interview that feels very amateurish but has enough insight to justify its existence here.

        Interview with Eli Roth and Ashley Bell - pretty much as above, if not a little more sycophantic but that's Eli Roth for you.

        Audition Footage - four scenes featuring each of four stars auditioning for their roles. It's always hard to see why anyone would find these interesting.

        Trallers - Now this one is curious. There is a trailer used at the Cannes 2009 festival that features round 2 minutes of footage never used in the film (indeed, in this footage the lead character dies). The other trailer is the standard theatrical one that is rather more exciting than the film (and actually has glimpses that could be spoilers).

        ==The Last Word==

        A film with an identity crisis, The Last Exorcism believes itself to be far cleverer than it really is. The narrative twists once or twice too much and sets itself up to be a disappointment to anyone expecting a 'real' exorcism movie. Strong performances and a few innovative touches can't really save this from being one of the more disappointing horror deliverables of 2010, even if the studios stuffed as many extras onto the DVD as they could find.

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        • The Loved Ones (DVD) / DVD / 61 Readings / 55 Ratings
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          10.01.2011 11:12
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          Prom horror is back!

          This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation.

          Brent lives at home with his mother and their pet dog. Months earlier, Brent's father was killed in an accident and both Brent and his mother are still struggling to cope with their loss. Brent is withdrawn and moody but finds some comfort in the arms of his girlfriend Holly or hanging out with his best friend Jamie. When it comes around to the school dance, a quiet girl named Lola approaches Brent and asks whether he will go to the dance with her. He declines politely, unaware that he may have upset the girl more than he realised.

          The glitter ball hanging from the ceiling is slowly turning, casting a shimmering and yet somehow eerie light around the four walls. The room is unfamiliar, but a few dance hall props are strewn here and there. His arms are tied behind his back and he still feels woozy where somebody drugged him. There is a young girl in a pink dress sat watching him and a man sat around the other side of the table. Wait a minute. Is that Lola? What's going on?

          "This is the hammer I killed your dog with," says the man and Brent's worst nightmare suddenly becomes reality.

          ==Re-igniting Prom Horror==

          Something about the school prom has always captured the imagination of horror writers. The outpouring of hormones and adolescent angst seems to provide endless opportunities for psychotic stalkers or teenaged cruelty. Whether it's Jamie Lee Curtis being stalked by a nutcase in Prom Night or Sissy Spacek being immersed in a bucket of pig's blood in Carrie, it seems that the high school prom rarely ends on a positive note. It has become something of a horror caricature over the years, however, with films like Scream starting to parody the whole concept and it has been some time since somebody made a 'good' prom night horror movie. Well, that's where Australian writer/director Sean Byrne comes in with this deliciously nasty slice of horror that has a seemingly relentless series of surprises up its dark sleeves.

          The Loved Ones takes similar territory (the quiet girl at school, mocked by the authors, rejected by one of the 'good-looking' boys) and turns it on its head. Here, Lola isn't the victim. She's the perpetrator and it's only when she gets going that you realise just how bad she is. For Brent, the ordeal is overwhelming. Within seconds of regaining consciousness, he's injected with a fluid that stops him screaming, which is ironic really because during the next sixty minutes or so, that's pretty much all he's going to want to do. To make matters worse, Lola isn't in this all by herself. She's Daddy's little Princess, and in spite of what quickly demonstrates itself as an extremely unhealthy relationship, what Princess wants, Princess gets. Unfortunately for Brent, this time it's him.

          ==Like, Ouch!==

          This is a horror film for horror fans. There's nothing particularly sanitised or softened about The Loved Ones. It's a typically Australian film. It's edgy and unpredictable. It spares us from caricature and tips us into a slightly primitive, rather remote kind of place where clearly anything goes. Like most Australian films (horror or otherwise) teenagers are portrayed as rather dysfunctional, but The Loved Ones leaves the other ones standing. Lola - or Princess as she is generally known - is as psychotic as they come and with the capable assistance of her father, she's pretty much unstoppable.

          The film evokes other recent Australian horrors such as Wolf Creek and Acolytes. Where American film directors like to portray the US as sun-filled, upbeat and exciting, Australian directors have a rather more subdued take on their home territory. Not shy to demonstrate the country's natural beauty, they somehow manage to make it sinister instead of picturesque, the landscape appearing to imitate the harshness of the events taking place in the narrative. In The Loved Ones, the world seems out of control. Authority seems impotent, inutile and powerless. It's almost an alternate reality and yet, as the news occasionally reveals, it's actually entirely possible. Bad things really do happen to nice people.

          ==Tale of the Unexpected==

          What sets The Loved Ones out from the competition is that it's just not predictable. Whatever you think is going to happen, the film is almost guaranteed to yield a few surprises. Part slasher, part thriller, part torture porn and part, ah well that would be telling. That's a delight that you'll need to discover for yourself. That aside, this is gruesome stuff. As soon as Lola is revealed to be a psychopath, it's entirely relentless. Many of the conventions of unrequited love are abandoned from the outset. Lola doesn't gradually turn against Brent. She seems to despise him from the beginning. She doesn't start with some moderate teasing and cruelty. She's straight in there with the hammer. She's nothing, if not hardcore.

          The cat and mouse elements are played right down. Byrne doesn't really seem to want to play a stalk and slash and simply wants to leave Brent to the mercies of Lola and her father from word go. The tension is broken only by a curious sub-plot featuring best friend Jamie and a hot otherwise unknown girl and there adventures in the more conventional side of going to the dance. It's as those Jamie represents how things *should* be and yet there's clearly something not right about his night either. As things bubble away and it all gets more and more desperate, it all gradually falls into place - if you've taken your hands away from your eyes that is.

          Torture porn is a vastly over-used term these days. 'Good' torture porn films are very few and far between. Most are silly, nearly all are cheap and none of them really get the emotion of the situation right. In The Loved Ones, Sean Byrne gets it spot on. The torture is brutal. The audience feels every blow and wince and yet there isn't actually that much of it. There's a nasty innovative streak throughout that might eventually have you wondering who thinks up this stuff but it's car crash viewing. When you realise that the conventions that the hero is guaranteed to escape might not be observed here, you suddenly realise that anything goes - and that makes The Loved Ones quite a gruesome experience.

          It's largely devoid of humour too. The trailer might lead the audience to believe that this is a little tongue-in-cheek but Byrne eviscerates any sense of humour here and drenches the whole thing in buckets of dirty sweat. There's no other way to describe it than 'unpleasant' and in so many ways. When we meet the wretched creature that is Lola's mother, we can only begin to wonder what horrors she has had to endure. Our skin crawls when Lola's father eyes up his daughter in her underwear as she tries on her prom dress and when Brent needs to use the bathroom, every man in the room will soon be crossing his legs in terror. And that's before the rug in the kitchen is pulled back...

          It's easy to see why The Loved Ones was so revered at many of the horror film festivals. It's the sheer sense of lunacy and surprise that every frame yields. It's the way in which the film allows you to think you know exactly what's going on and then quickly proves you haven't really got a clue. The Loved Ones simultaneously respects and tramples over every known horror convention ('Clink, rasp, scrape, clink, rasp, scrape') without ever relaxing its hold on the audience. The next time a girl asks you on a date, the chances are that you'll say yes having watched this.

          ==Who's Who==

          It's hard to deny that the star of this particular show is Robin McLeavy, whose psychotic portrayal of Lola/Princess is frighteningly convincing. It was important for the makers to select a girl who was quite attractive. It would have been too obvious to have a frump or a freak, so the fact that she does actually looks quite innocent and feminine makes this all the more startling. McLeavy seems to enjoy it all far too much for comfort, combining a childish kind of mischief with a relentless, savage, nastiness that leads you to wonder just what she's going to do next.

          Ironically, it's hard to decide exactly what her father (John Brumpton) is all about. Sometimes he seems to be the leader, sometimes just a willing assistant and then every now and then there's a flicker of realisation that what he/she is doing is wrong. Brumpton handles this ambiguity perfectly. He's creepy and nasty when he needs to be, without ever resorting to pantomime and the partnership is pretty convincing, it has to be said.

          Xavier Samuel is limited by his character's ordeal. He's not the conventional, square-jawed hero of the piece but, again, this makes things a little more realistic. You can see why Lola might have been drawn to his brooding, slightly mysterious looks and this offsets the demure innocence of his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine on fine form) perfectly. That aside, Samuel doesn't really have to say a lot and doesn't really have to do a lot but it's hard not to be convincing when somebody is hammering knives into your feet.

          ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

          There's a certain grainy imperfection to The Loved Ones that seems entirely appropriate. That doesn't mean it's not impressive, because it is, but it's not glossy and sharp like a more conventional, bigger budget picture might be. The colours and rich and intoxicating, from the pink of Princess's dress to the vivid scarlet of the spilt blood and yet the whole thing has a subdued kind of atmosphere, as though the world is in dreadful apprehension of what will happen next. This is almost certainly a film that high definition would not improve. It needs faults. It needs to be imperfect. Its flaws are almost its strengths.

          The soundtrack is excellent too, combining Indie Australian rock music with a sombre, rather eerie score that complements the proceedings admirably. That aside, the surround sound is largely unused here, which is a little disappointing particularly given some of the later events that could have benefited from the subtleties offered by the use of other speakers. The special features are very limited. There are a number of interviews with the director and four of the cast members but they're presented in a terribly fragmented format with barely more than thirty seconds devoted to each. It's largely impossible to say anything even remotely insightful in that time and the makers would have done far better to try and draw together one consolidated feature. Likewise there are about ninety seconds of behind-the-scenes footage, which is largely pointless.

          ==What PlipPlop Reckons==

          The strongest horror film for some time, The Loved Ones is brutal and bonkers. Demonstrating that dark, eerie verve that isn't uncommon in Australian film, The Loved Ones manages to be everything it wouldn't have been had it been made in Hollywood. Lots of genres fuse here in a nasty little flick that will certainly separate the men from the boys. This is a cult classic waiting to be discovered - and Sean Byrne just became a name to be watched.

          Highly recommended

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          • More +
            04.01.2011 21:10
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            A road trip - with a twist

            This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation. This is a Mexican film, whose title literally translates to 'And Your Mama Too'.

            ==The Story==

            Tenoch and Julio are two teenaged boys living in Mexico. When their girlfriends go away backpacking together, they find themselves at a bit of a loose end. Tenoch comes from a wealthy family and they spend the summer lazing around the pool at his father's health club and generally wasting time.

            At an important family wedding, they meet Ana, the wife of one of Tenoch's cousins. The boys both find Ana extremely attractive and compete for her attentions. Whilst discussing holidays and more, Ana mentions her love of the beach, prompting the boys to tell her that they are planning a visit to a very special (and completely fictitious) beach called Heaven's Mouth. Ana initially declines the invitation but when she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, she decides to do something radical and calls Tenoch up to see if the invitation is still open. The three of them then proceed to embark on a road trip across Mexico, to a beach that probably doesn't exist, learning an awful lot about each other along the way.

            ==Everyone Loves a Road Trip==

            There's something enigmatically romantic about road trip movies that seems to capture an audience's imagination. It's probably the sense of abandonment that does it, but a number of road trip films seem to rank highly in audience 'best films of all time', notably Thelma and Louise and It Happened One Night. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a classic example of a road trip movie. It features three characters at different stages in their lives, each united by a turning point of one sort of another. The trio comprises an unlikely mixture and is therefore a heady concoction of emotion, sexuality and humour. The outcome is entirely unpredictable, and, as with many road trip movies, the destination is rather more of an emotional one than a physical one, even if the narrative more literally depicts the latter.

            Y Tu Mama Tambien is seen as the movie that 'made' Alfonso Cuaron's career. Three years after this was released, he broke the mainstream and directed the third Harry Potter movie, followed by the critically acclaimed Children of Men. Y Tu bears resemblance to either of those films and is no indication of the sort of filmmaking that would follow, but remains a highly rated film. Co-written and directed by Cuaron it's the sort of film that works on both a superficial and a rather more profound level, although it's safe to say that it won't suit all tastes. Upon its release, the film was condemned for its sexually explicit content and in many ways has become more infamous than anything else.

            ==The Journey and The Destination==

            The film's narrative is relatively sedately paced, with very little actually happening - not uncommon for a road trip film. The drama rests on the dialogue and the 'little things' that happen along the way but perhaps the most appealing aspect is the curious relationship between the three leads. The two teenagers, Julio and Tenoch, for example, are almost entirely without any sense of charm. They're not bad people, but they're patently immature, juvenile and sex-obsessed, as you might expect from boys their age. Ana, on the other hand, is older, more successful and rather more mature and it's difficult to understand what would drive the three of them together. Of course, the answer to that is Ana. The boys desire Ana sexually and Ana desires the aloof, carefree existence demonstrated by the boys now that her husband has proven to be unfaithful. The fact that they can now each offer something to the other means that there is a dynamic to the group and the journey is set.

            The journey is lengthy. The boys actually have no real idea where they are going, loosely heading towards a destination that one of their friends has recommended but Heaven's Mouth is, in actual fact, an invention intended to lure Ana away. But, as you might expect, the destination becomes less significant as the journey leads to revelation and self-discovery for all of them. Road trips are often used to demonstrate emotional experiences, notably the 'coming of age' of young adults, and for Tenoch and Julio this is very much the case here. The dialogue and events experienced along the way continually reinforce their immaturity and it's really only after a seminal event towards the end of the film that anything changes. The journey leads them to question their friendship, with revelations and confessions from both of them drawing out conflict but throughout the film it seems clear that nothing is really what it seems. An initial revelation from Julio, for example, is never actually proven and seems instead to be a reaction to a different kind of feeling that he is suddenly having. Nonetheless, as characters and in terms of what they represent, Julio and Tenoch remain relatively superficial.

            Ana is rather more complex, becoming increasingly so as the film develops. Ana's world is rocked by the news of her husband's infidelity, but as she gets drawn further and further into the teenager's environment, it leads her to question the decisions that she has made. There are some curious exchanges with her husband, not so much tinged with regret, but there's something corrective, almost final about them that never really becomes clear until the film's closing scenes. Early in the film, we see her filling out a checklist for one of those character studies regularly featured in women's magazines, and the outcome seems catalyse many of the decisions she subsequently makes. Ana's character probably undergoes the biggest change throughout the film, gradually loosening up and losing inhibitions, as she seems to shed the life that she has led behind, whilst the boys simply continue to do what they did before.

            The sexual content is fairly strong but depicted in a relatively light-hearted manner. The director seems intent on showing the boys' youthful clumsiness and most of the sex is actually rather laughable. Indeed, there's really only one significant scene that has more presence, simply because of what it represents. There's a reasonable amount of full frontal nudity (male and female) but despite what the critics have claimed, it's a strangely un-sexy product. There's an emotional detachment from the sex that's common to all three characters until the film gets towards the end but otherwise it's pretty much a comedy.

            ==Cuaron's Style==

            The film has won much acclaim for its cinematography of rural Mexico and it's certainly very authentic. The audience feels as though it is truly experiencing the 'real' Mexico and there's something almost documentary-like about some of the camerawork, as though the film crew is making some kind of fly-on-the wall series. It doesn't necessarily sell Mexico as a destination. The beach at which they eventually arrive is pretty breathtaking, but the countryside along the way is generally arid, dusty and rather bleak. Like many other Mexican filmmakers, Cuaron's un-glamorised view of the Mexicans has a tendency to verge towards making them look a little primitive at times, although some viewers might prefer to define that as charming.

            What makes the film very unusual, however, is a repeated interruption from a male narrator, who states a series of facts in a rather staccato, lifeless manner. In the earlier part of the film, this generally introduces or describes new characters, with a strangely matter-of-fact approach to discussing their lives. Later on, this moves on to a strange social/political commentary, with the narrator describing events that have happened or will happen. It's very odd and not an entirely comfortable addition to the story, often darkening the tone of what is otherwise a fairly light-hearted moment. As you can imagine, the film is full of symbolism, both visual and spoken. Water is often demonstrated as both liberating (at the beach) and restricting (at the hotel) showing how different environments interact with our lives in different ways. There's a strange significance from tragedies that have occurred at locations passed by the threesome, with links often made in a way that some audience members might struggle to grasp. It's certainly a very curious film that works on a number of levels, but is never quite wholly satisfying. It's obviously subtitled, too, which puts another barrier up for non-English speakers.

            ==The Characters==

            It's one of Gael Garcia Bernal's earlier movies, although by the time this was made he was six years older than the character he was depicting. Bernal's youthfulness is a critical part of many of his film roles, however, and so despite the age gap he's very convincing here. Bernal is a passionate actor and certainly lives the role of Julio although his juvenile mannerisms wear thin after a while. It's a similar story, in fairness, for Diego Luna, who hasn't experienced the same success as Bernal since the movie. A year younger than Bernal, Luna is certainly immature and probably more convincing as a teenager, exhibiting a sort of nervous lack of confidence that supports his younger years.

            For Ana Lopez Mercado, Y Tu Mama represented the debut of a very short-lived career, going on only to star in a TV show for a couple of years. It's a puzzling decision, because she's very good here. Equally vulnerable and dominant, Mercado is in fact two years younger than either of the two male leads, but is infinitely more mature and adult on the screen. Ana's role is a surprisingly emotional one and Mercado is very convincing. She's also very brave with some of the sexual content and doesn't hold back.

            ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

            The picture is presented here is presented in anamorphic widescreen. It's a very intimate film and doesn't, therefore, require the big screen to succeed. It's presented in a fairly washed-out style, with the colour virtually baked out of the screen by the Mexican sun, but it's certainly sharp and precise. There seems to be a real attention to skin tones here, particularly thanks to the range of faces so commonly thrust into the camera. The wizened skin of the world-weary old woman contrasts markedly with Ana's youthful features but both look faultless on screen. The soundtrack is a little more basic. Although presented in surround sound, it's not something you're really aware of as all the dialogue (and this a dialogue-driven film) dominates the centre speaker, with little left for the others. The dialogue is constant though and the subtitles are easy to follow, with very few errors or details lost in translation.

            The DVD carries a significant set of special features, such that are sub-menus within the main menu. All of the menus are frustrating to navigate though.

            Me La Debes (You Owe Me) - a 12 minute short film from one of the writers, this is essentially a sex/farce comedy featuring a middle class Mexican family. It's not the best you'll see, but it's perfectly paced and timed and it's good to see new original content added to DVDs.

            Audio Interview - this is exclusive to the UK DVD release and features the director interviewed in English. It's actually quite a good interview, more insightfully considered than others and not just a basic promotional tool.

            Color Bars - a bizarre, psychedelic thirty seconds of music and colourful imagery

            Cast & Crew Biographies - brief profiles with little jokes about the cast and crew - these are pretty pointless.

            Soundtrack - four songs from the original soundtrack are presented here, which provides a nice taster if you're thinking of buying the album, but if you've just watched the film, you should know whether you like it really.

            Making of Featurette - the making of featurette is around 25 minutes long but vaguely irritating. It's very heavy on jovial dialogue and light on insight.

            No One Under 17 Admitted - this is just a pointless snippet of the last scene and title sequence.

            Trailer/TV Spots / Promotional Material/Screenplay Extracts - this is just a collection of clips and static images that is really just padding.

            ==PlipPlop Says==

            This isn't a film for all tastes. Many will find the relatively slow pace a little dull and it's all so stuffed with sexual innuendo, symbolism and analogy that it risks wasting some of its finer points. It is, however, funny and engaging, with three strong leads and a sense of the unexpected that never quite goes away. Whether it deserves the rave reviews is another matter, but it's certainly a good example of a road movie.

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            • Predators (DVD) / DVD / 56 Readings / 50 Ratings
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              03.01.2011 11:11
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              The latest Predator film - and it's a let down.

              This is a review of the film only.

              ==The Story==

              When Royce regains consciousness, he is startled to find that he his hurtling freefall through the air. As the ground looms closer and closer, he finally manages to activate his parachute before plunging into a canopy of trees and knocking himself unconscious once more. When he regains consciousness, he is completely unaware of where he is and how he got there and it quickly becomes clear that he he's not the only way.

              It soon becomes clear that a disparate group of killers, thugs and mercenaries has been assembled for reasons unknown. As they forge an uneasy alliance and make their way through the jungle, they quickly realise that they are no longer on Earth but there are more ominous discoveries to be made. It's clear that something else has arrived on the planet when they find a large, empty packing case that has been smashed open from the inside. Worse still, they stumble into a heavily booby-trapped area of the jungle, where they find the remains of a soldier that was desperately trying to catch 'something'.

              But as they make their way through the terrain, they have no idea that they are being watched. In the bushes, something lurks and waits, viewing them through alien eyes and recording their movements through highly enhanced equipment that tracks their body heat. It's time for the predators to become the prey...

              ==All The Fun of the Franchise==

              Many see 1987's Predator film as one of the seminal action/thriller films of the 1980s. The film introduced audiences to a fearsome and innovative new race of aliens, one of which had crash landed in a South American jungle, leaving command Arnold Schwarzenegger and his men to try and beat it. The creation was a huge success but spawned a lacklustre sequel set in the city before retiring quietly. The Predators returned in two subsequent sequels, whereby they were pitched against the Aliens from the infamous Sigourney Weaver franchise but neither film was particularly well received by critics or fans. When it was announced that another sequel was to go into production, the news was met with a mixed reaction. Many expected another dire addition to the franchise, but the fact that Robert Rodriguez was to produce the film gave hope that this could be the next great Predator film. The taglines even promised that this was 'finally, the sequel the original deserves.'

              The reality is that it's probably the best of the four sequels but that's about as far as it goes. The film certainly has neither the impact nor the presence of the 1987 original and is actually, quite surprisingly, tame and dull. It's amazing how twenty-three years after the original Antal really just retreads similar ground and brings virtually nothing new to the concept. The fan boys were looking for one of those 'moments', rather like the time when the Daleks flew for the first time or the Incredible Hulk became intelligent. Predators has nothing like this up its sleeve and in many ways is not so much a sequel as a remake.

              ==What Happened Next==

              Chronologically, the writers place this story some time after the original, by referencing the events that took place in Predator. What this doesn't really answer is how this links up with the events of Alien vs Predator 1 and 2. Thos sequels introduced a concept of how our planet was used by the Predators, but for this film, there's a slightly contradictory, parallel suggestion that the Predators use other planets in similar ways. It isn't particularly well-considered. A lot of potential is missed. We never understand, for example, how the human beings were selected or how they were transported to their new location. Here lies an opportunity to introduce a new concept that goes completely unexplained. The suggestion that the Predators would use this new planet rather like a game reserve never really adds up either, for a number of reasons.

              The Predators are an alien race at the top of their game when it comes to combat and hunting. Their desire to manage what is essentially an extra-terrestrial game reserve is slightly puzzling. It's an awful lot of effort to go to for reasonably limited gain and it doesn't stack up with the A vs P concept. If the Predators were previously happy to come to Earth to play around a bit, why then subsequently transport the humans to a different environment elsewhere? The fact that they ONLY select humans is also very limiting. There were opportunities here to introduce other creatures and combatants, potentially pitching the best/worst that the human race has to offer against other alien life forms.

              It's difficult to understand why the Predators would bother with all this. In earlier films, they are presented as enjoying the challenge of combat but there's arguably no challenge in picking off a weaker race of individuals that are vastly inferior physically. Had the game reserve concept been a training ground for young/baby Predators then it might have made more sense. Then there's the issue that they just do it for sport. That doesn't really fit very well either. The nobility of the Predators is very badly handled here. Whilst they've always been portrayed as brutal killers, as time has gone on, they seem to be rather more honourable than other races and yet here they just descend into killing for the sake of killing.

              So, as a chapter in Predator chronology this adds nothing new and actually contradicts or spoils previous instalments.

              ==Predators vs Predators==

              The human side of the film is a bit clumsy too. The selection of the human candidates for the alien planet seems awfully contrived. They quickly figure out that they're all 'predators' themselves but this is translated very obviously. One if a Yakuza crime boss, one is a killer on death row, one is a tribal gang leader and so on. Arguably, they're not necessarily the best definition of predators - bullies and thugs maybe. This makes it hard, again, to see why the Predators would enjoy hunting them. There's also a wild card, in the shape of a young doctor who seems to have been transported there by mistake, but the nature of his presence is almost entirely obvious from the beginning.

              Of course, this reverses the dynamics of the first film in a way, simply by grouping together a team of individuals that has absolutely no interest in the welfare of its components. So there's no trust or commitment to working together. It's a bit of a free-for-all, although relationships do, inevitably, develop. That's fine as far as it goes, but it makes it very difficult for the audience to really care what happens to any of them. Films like the original Predator and Aliens work on the basis that we're presented with a team of good guys, some of whom we mourn if they are dispatched by the monsters. Here, we couldn't really give a damn about any of them. The introduction of Royce is, from the outset, the equivalent of creating our leading man, but he isn't developed very well at all. He swerves from being utterly selfish to being considerate and thoughtful and it's too changeable to allow the audience to settle on whether they like him or not.

              There's also a rather dull section in the middle where the humans find temporary shelter in an old space craft but this really seems to divert the pace and content of the overall story line. It's almost as though the writers thought that the audience would need a breather and decided to put a 'talky' bit in the middle. It's largely unnecessary.

              ==Look and Feel==

              Technically, the film is perfectly competent. The action scenes are dramatic, fast-paced and suitably brutal and the thing generally romps along at a good pace. The jungle setting works reasonably well here and is reminiscent of the original film, particularly through the same distinctive use of sounds and tribal music that had such an impact in the first film. It's almost entirely devoid of innovation though. Antal's direction is consistently pedestrian and it's an extremely conventional style of film making. There are no visual flourishes here to impress or astound the audience in any way at all.

              The special effects are reasonable. The Predators bring with them a new race of alien 'hounds', which look reasonably good but are arguably over-complicated. The Predators haven't really advanced much since that first film twenty-three year ago. Their body armour and natural appearance look almost exactly the same as they did in the original and there's an astounding lack of new gadgets and toys for them to play with. Aliens vs Predators arguably showed them with a lot more tricks up their sleeves and this is another example of criminally wasted opportunities. That's a bit like the jungle itself that barely has a single 'alien' feature and smacks of creative laziness. Why set the film on a foreign planet if you're just going to make it look like South America?

              ==Who's Who==

              Adrien Brody is a good actor but a curious choice for the lead here. He may admittedly have bulked up down the gym, but he has to try really hard to be gruff and 'heroic' and you can't help wishing that somebody like Jason Statham was holding the gun instead of him. Topher Grace rather over-acts as the mysterious Edwin, who is so desperate to point out his vulnerability and innocence that you smell a rat within minutes. Alice Braga improves on her turn in Repo Men with a solid performance here as Isabelle, the only person in the crew who seems able to think strategically and not just randomly open fire.

              Walton Goggins just plays Walton Goggins again, as he always does. Here, he's a smart-mouthed convict from death row, but that works as far as it needs to. Oleg Taktarov is the obligatory muscle bound Russian who says very little apart from those occasional phrases in Russian that we know probably mean something along the lines of 'f*** you!' Laurence Fishburne turns up half way through the proceedings as a slightly bonkers survivor of the previous batch of humans but he's largely pointless here. Danny Trejo gets another role as an ugly, Mexican bandit and Louis Ozawa Changchien plays a silent Yakuza assassin. Silently.

              There are essentially three models of Predator here. One's called a Tracker, one's a Berserker and one's the Classic Predator, but this is something that exists only in the cast list. The three aren't very well defined individually and there isn't enough to set them apart from one another. There's that missed opportunity phrase again...

              ==PlipPlop Says==

              This is one of the most disappointing sequels of the entire franchise. Predator 2 at least *tried* to do something different and the A Vs P movies were something of a guilty pleasure but all this really does is just go back and repeat everything from the first film. That doesn't make it a bad film (and it's certainly a competent enough production technically) but it does make it a hugely wasted opportunity and that's largely unforgivable.

              Another episode seems highly likely but unless the next writer(s) can pull something really new out of the bag then the 1987 original can sit back and remain confident that it will always be the best of the bunch.

              Not recommended

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              • More +
                21.12.2010 14:25
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                Strangers in a mysterious room must solve riddles to save their lives

                This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation. This is a Spanish film, for which the original title was La habitación de Fermat.

                A mysterious stranger, who names himself only as Fermat, writes to four of the world's most brilliant statisticians and invites them to a secret country retreat to solve the world's greatest conundrum. Hilbert spends his time playing chess with his friends and keeping himself to himself. Galois, on the other hand, is a brash young mathematician who uses his success to attract women. Oliva is around the same edge as Galois but is rather more reserved, almost as though she knows something the others don't. Pascal is an inventor, and continually reflects upon the situation, finding new possibilities and risks.

                The strangers are instructed not to tell one another anything about their personal lives and must respond only to the names given by Fermat. At a secluded, lakeside location, the strangers make their way to a house, deep within the woodlands, where they find a room set up in the middle of a disused factory. The room is luxuriously furnished, with plenty of food and drink and appears comfortable. They are understandably excited. When a fifth man arrives, his name badge tells them that he is Fermat and after they have eaten supper, the group is increasingly keen to start playing the game. A PDA beeps and a puzzle is presented. Surely this can't be it? They only have two minutes to solve the puzzle. Was it their imagination or did the walls move when they failed to solve the puzzle on time?

                ==The Premise==

                The first thing that strikes you when you read the plot synopsis for Fermat's Room is that you've seen it all before. The 'strangers caught in a trap' scenario was handled beautifully in the science-fiction classic Cube and has since gone on to spawn countless imitations. Indeed, the horror franchise Saw (now at seven films) works on a similar basis, with strangers pitched against one another to try and prevent increasingly grisly deaths. Fermat's Room is, however, a little different. It's rather 'low-tech' compared to the likes of Saw and Cube, with a very simple but equally deadly trap. The psychology is also very different. In Cube, the strangers were abducted and simply woke up in the trap, quickly realising something was wrong. In Saw, the sheer grisliness of the trap made this even clearer and with only a few minutes between the start and potential death, the horror and action are rather more intense and explosive.

                Fermat's Room requires a little more attention than either Saw or Cube. It's rather stylish, directed and produced very much in the style of an old-fashioned Agatha Christie whodunit. As the characters gather in Fermat's Room, it is as though the inhabitants of an old English country house have gathered in the library to work out who murdered the vicar. Fermat's Room is largely devoid of blood and violence too, so viewers that enjoy the suspense of a story like this but aren't fans of claret may find this rather more appealing. Overall, it's simply a cleverer, more stylish production. The narrative is written and presented in such a way that it keeps fooling the characters and the audience and the outcome is rather less predictable than other films within the genre.

                ==Identity==

                Fermat's Room focuses heavily on identity, or should that be mistaken, confused or fake identities. As is often the case in stories like this, you can largely guarantee that nobody here is what they seem to be. We are introduced to three of the room's inhabitants early on in the film with a brief insight into their lives before the activity in the room, but the writers keep things deliberately vague. We are shown these details for a reason and it's not until events unfold further later on that we understand exactly why we were shown these events. From there, the audience largely has to play along with the characters, piecing together the clues of what is one big conundrum. Were the characters aware of it, they would realise that their story is the great conundrum referred to in Fermat's letter, but that is, of course, the genius of the film.

                As the film progress, it becomes clear, of course, that all the characters have secrets. The fact that the room is actually a death trap is, unsurprisingly, revealed early on, as the suspense of the whole thing relies on the fact that the characters must believe that they are about to be squashed. What follows, however, is one revelation after another. These aren't huge, earth-shattering, plausibility-bending revelations, however. These are often quite subtle little facts, where one droplet of information seems to send ripples through the room, disrupting the film's dynamics and turning characters around (and on to each other). It soon becomes clear that whoever is behind the trap has attempted to be deliberately divisive, pitching together a group of individuals who may or may not have a history and, more importantly, may or may not have a future if they don't sort themselves out.

                The characterisation is, however, refreshingly free from cliché. In films like Saw (and Cube to an extent) the group dynamics are determined by key characters, of which there always seems to be one. There's always somebody who's a bit dodgy and just out for himself, and you know will eventually turn on the group. There's always one who turns out to be secretly good at something that may or may not save the day, and there's always a central hero or heroine - the strong one that leads the group. Here, it's not so much the case. For starters, the individuals have been brought together due to their abilities, so there are no real revelations there. As successful academics, they're unlikely to turn into violent bullies, so we're spared a lot of macho nonsense too. What we actually find is a curious group of people, admittedly with their own secrets, but rather more interesting to watch as the clock ticks.

                ==The Style==

                There's a romantic nostalgia running through the core of Fermat's Room, with the directors clearly having a strong affection for old-fashioned whodunit murder mysteries. The set-up is entirely old school, particularly at the lakeside where the strangers are beckoned to an island by mysterious flashing lights. Only in Saw are the characters pitched into squalor and depravity and here the trap is rather more civilised. The room is filled with bookshelves and food and drink are laid on in plentiful supply. It's actually rather gentlemanly and a refreshing change to the usual ultra-violent or ultra-modern equivalents that we would otherwise see.

                This is a tale of retribution (unsurprisingly with strong parallels to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None). The issue here is that we don't know the reasons behind the retribution and thereafter it's up to the audience to try and figure it out. The directors maintain a sense of simplicity about the film. There is nothing particularly clever about the way the film is shot, and is largely set within the room, where the four walls are gradually closing in. This doesn't seem to put any strain on the film, however, and creates the perfect combination of claustrophobia and tension. The only action to take place outside the room features one of the five key characters, who is called away from the room at the beginning, leading us to believe one thing is the case when in fact it is evidence of something entirely different. Not only is this a cunning plot twist, it's also a natural and effective break from the action taking place inside the room. This almost allows the film to breathe, without losing any of that bite or pace.

                It's a film targeted at people who enjoy mysteries. The film, as stated, is of course one big mystery, but the puzzles in between are intriguing enough to engage curious minds. Everything here is a mystery, from the names granted to the characters in the room to the identity of Fermat and the machinations that have led to things taking shape. Despite how it might sound, Fermat's room is not a confusing film. It's thoughtful, intriguing and engaging but should appeal to wide cross-section of film viewers. Considering this is the directorial debut of Piedrahita and Sopena, this is impressive stuff.

                ==Who's Who==

                There is no real lead in Fermat's Room, with all four of the strangers trapped inside largely of equal importance. Lluis Homar is, perhaps, the most memorable of them all because he is the quirkiness. An older, perky gentleman, he seems to be least serious of the bunch and the most open to new ideas. There's a sparkle in Homar's eye throughout this film that only really reveals itself later on and this is a great performance. Alejo Sauras is rather the opposite of Homar. Young, impetuous and slightly arrogant, he is, nonetheless, surprisingly not as obnoxious as you might expect. Sauras's character is largely the room's panic barometer and Sauras handles this well. It also helps that he's rather easy on the eye.

                Speaking of which, up next is Elena Ballesteros who is the initial mystery of the room. It's always clear there is more to her than meets the eye but her steely resolve and calm exterior are quite baffling. She's strikingly beautiful too, although her statistical skills seem less evidenced than her male counterparts. Santi Millan is the emotional one in the group. He has an alcohol problem, which doesn't help, but he is probably the honest one. He reveals his hand very early on. Finally, there is Federico Luppi, who, as Fermat, should be the biggest mystery of the piece. Luppi probably doesn't have enough to get his teeth into here, but is adequately curious, if nothing else.

                ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

                The picture presentation here makes the film look surprisingly old. It may have been released in 2007, but this could easily be ten or fifteen years older and feels like something from a digital camera. That's not entirely off-putting as, in some ways, it adds to the atmosphere of the film, but anyone expecting a sharp, impressive picture will be disappointed. Much of the film is grainy and blurry and darkness looks particularly ropy here. There's a 5.1 surround sound track here, which is certainly adequate. However, in the confined space of the room, you would have expected sound to be used much more atmospherically and the front speaker largely dominates it. The dialogue doesn't dip up and down, however, and the subtitles only have the odd, little mistake.

                The makers have tried to be generous with the special features here but that doesn't make them overly interesting.

                Making of - This is very much a promotional film, with interviews with the cast and clips. It adds nothing to the experience - this is the sort of thing that would be used to fill vacant time on an entertainment channel.

                Deleted and extended scenes - This is quite a good feature, only in that, unusually, the directors appear before each deleted scene explaining exactly why it was deleted. This is quite insightful and a far better way to present this kind of feature.

                3D plans' - These are just two scenes from the film that were produced using computer imagery with a brief walkthrough of how they were achieved. This feature is only a minute long.

                Outtakes - There are four minutes of outtakes but it's a struggle to understand why anyone would really be interested in this.

                Rehearsals - There are about seven minutes of footage showing the cast in rehearsals. This is, again, a rather uninteresting feature.

                ==PlipPlop Verdict==

                Fans of old-fashioned mysteries will probably enjoy Fermat's Room. It is stylish and atmospheric and saves us from the modern need to stuff these things full of gory effects and nastiness. The brisk running time supports a genuine sense of peril, though criticisms of the plausibility are probably not unfounded. The special features make a good effort but have limited appeal but then you can pick this up for less than £4. The film alone justifies that.

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                • More +
                  20.12.2010 14:51
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                  Strong debut from the best boyband around at the moment

                  This is a review of the standard edition of The Wanted, the debut album from The Wanted (as if!) Expect to pay around £8 online or on CD for this baby.

                  ==Who Wanted The Wanted?==

                  Despite the sneers of and derision of a large part of the music-buying public, boy bands have been an intrinsic part of the popular music scene for decades. Some would argue that The Beatles were one of the original boy bands, but the term is more commonly associated with groups from the 1980s onwards, when the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet reduced teenaged girls to tears on more than an infrequent basis. Boy bands are arguably an essential part of musical culture. Every generation from the 1980s onwards has seemingly been defined by the prevalent boy band(s) of the era, although this slowed down in the late 2000s. Over-exposure of groups like Westlife and their general 'crooning' ways seemed to leave the public a little disinterested in the concept and girl bands like Girls Aloud seemed to take over.

                  In the last year or two, there has been a slow resurgence in the phenomenon, largely kickstarted by the success of JLS on ITV's X-Factor. Despite not actually winning the series, JLS have gone on to enormous commercial success and seem to tick all the boxes of their young fans. This new-age boy band approach is even more commercial than ever, and JLS have gone on to become more a marketing phenomenon than anything else. With Take That now re-formed but seen as more of a mature person's boy band, clearly smart music executives identified a gap in the market and that is where The Wanted came in.

                  ==About The Wanted==

                  There's no exciting story about fate and chance that might have brought The Wanted together. The band was formed through a simple audition process in 2009 and, unsurprisingly, was entirely manufactured. The band was formed by the same team that currently produces the successful girl band The Saturdays.

                  The band comprises five members aged between 17 and 22. Max George (be still beating heart) is often considered to be the lead vocalist in the group (something that is not always true, as the album reveals.) He was previously in a boy band called Avenue, which made it to the boot camp stage in the third series of X-Factor. Siva Kaneswaran's exotic name is matched by his looks. Kaneswaran is of joint Irish and Sri Lankan background and featured in a TV series in 2008 called Rock Rivals but has also worked as a model. Jay McGuinness had no experience of the music scene prior to joining the band, having only studied dance and drama. Tom Parker also previously auditioned for X Factor but didn't even get past the first round. Nathan Sykes is the baby of the band at 17. Despite his age, Sykes had probably been involved in more projects than any other member of the band, including representing the UK in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2004.

                  ==Most Wanted?==

                  The band's debut album was released in October 2010 and has seen reasonable success in the UK album charts, peaking at number four thus far. Arguably, after just two singles, the band wasn't really established enough to command the sort of sales that other boy bands might have collected. It's worth bearing in mind that by the time JLS released their first album, the band had had significant exposure on the X Factor TV show. The understated arrival of the album betrays a very strong debut, however, with a few surprises and an appeal that probably goes beyond the average boy band sound.

                  When you scan through the list of writers and producers involved, it's quite lucky that the album turned out quite as credible as it did. Whilst the writing and production credits read like a who's who of popular music, there was always a risk that the album would have a very diluted sound. Steve Mac wrote and produced the debut single '''All Time Low''', but his work history includes extensive involvement with the likes of Boyzone and Westlife. There is no gap in the market for another Westlife, so it's credit to Mac that he produced something a little more credible for The Wanted. Likewise, tracks on the album come from writers and producers like Wayne Hector, Cathy Dennis and Taio Cruz. It's fair to say, therefore, that The Wanted have cast the net wide and have attempted to produce an album that is as appealing as possible.

                  Generally, this is a pretty successful venture. Whilst the album is unlikely to convert devotees of rock music and thrash metal to this kind of sound, the fact remains that this goes beyond the usual remit of a boy band. It doesn't seem quite as over-produced as the likes of JLS, for example, whose music is targeted at a very young demographic. This album has a rather more mature sound to it, maintaining JLS's slightly childish 'bubble gum swing' at a distance. The thirteen tracks included here span a reasonable variety of styles. Never venturing far from the mainstream, there are some slower ballads (as to be expected) as well as more up-tempo numbers and even a few tunes that push things more towards the mature pop/rock sound that Take That has commanded. Importantly, this album doesn't *feel* like a teenager's album and has much more going for it.

                  ==Sounds and Influences==

                  Vocally, it's Max George that dominates the album. That doesn't necessarily mean that he has the best voice but he has the most distinctive voice. He seems to take lead vocals on many of the tunes, but the other guys aren't just relegated to backing singer roles. Indeed, Tom Parker also leads a number of the tunes here and this helps give the album its versatility. Traditionally, one vocalist largely dominates boy bands. Robbie Williams and Mark Owen may have had increasing presence within Take That's music over the years, but it has always been Gary Barlow that led most of the songs. Similarly, it was Ronan Keating in Boyzone and it doesn't really matter who leads in Westlife because they all sound exactly the same. Here, here's some flexibility, with five male vocals that sound distinct enough from each other to give each band member an identity. Lead song All Time Low is a good example, with each of the bad members taking a line or two at a time in each of the verses.

                  It's quite difficult to say who seems to influence The Wanted. In many ways, the answer could be 'nobody' because the album is such a manufactured product there seems to be little room for the boys' musical tastes to get involved. If a listener believes that All Time Low sounds as though it might have desires on a Coldplay song, that's nothing really to do with the band after all. Image-wise, The Wanted are playing the game quite shrewdly, maintaining an indifferent kind of sexuality that makes them appeal to teenaged girls and gay men in equal doses. Of course, they sing about and of girls but there isn't an obvious 'gay one' to draw endless, dull speculation. That kind of broad-based nonchalance carries through to the music here. These songs are radio-friendly, car-friendly, pub-friendly, gym-friendly and (in some cases) club-friendly in a way that few other artists can match. Notably, in fact, that kind of appeal is really only matched in the modern market by The Saturdays, the female equivalent of the Wanted boys.

                  That doesn't mean that this is a particularly ambitious album. The Wanted may stray away from cliché, but that doesn't mean that the recipe is entirely re-written here. Heart Vacancy might have a slightly more up-tempo approach to the traditional boy band ballad, but as its heart that's exactly what it is. It's more the arrangement behind the song that stops it falling into Westlife territory but it's worth remembering that it's only about two steps away from that at any time. There's a tendency for the album to wash over the listener after a while too. Most fans will almost certainly have individual tracks that stand out, but as a product in its own right, this album fails to really jump out and grab the listener's attention. In fairness, it's more the fact that it is actually a little less cheesy than other boy bands that makes The Wanted more striking, as opposed to a catalogue of superb music. It's all unquestionably safe. Sometimes, given that the album is about five hot, young men you do wonder whether they couldn't try to be just a little edgier.

                  ==The Good, The Indifferent, The Ugly==

                  All Time Low probably remains the album's stand out track. The dramatic string introduction suggests something epic about this song and the unusual vocal arrangement commands attention. All Time Low is arguably *too* strong for the rest of album, threatening to over-shadow everything else. Heart Vacancy is a welcome enough ballad, staying the right side of insipid whilst still sounding sincere and maintains that lyrical quality that makes All Time Low seem a bit different. Lose My Mind, the third single, has been compared to both Kings of Leon and Coldplay, but is very much a watered-down version of either, if at all. It is, nonetheless, a strong single and a good departure from the first two. It gives Tom a chance on the lead vocals for a start, but also pushes the concept of a boy band song a little further too. The Wanted works best when it showcases, epic, larger scale material. There's nothing to be gained from downplaying this band's sound.

                  Let's Get Ugly sounds out as one of the more innovative sounds on the album. For a start, it cunningly samples from the western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but is a funkier, more R & B driven sound that much of the rest of the album. Overall, it's a slightly contrived effect, but in the hands of the right DJ, this could be a monster.

                  Most of the rest of the album is likeable enough. Songs like Replace Your Heart are nice enough but don't really make the same sort of connection as the three lead songs. Indeed, Replace Your Heart has whispers of the Backstreet Boys about it, a sound that the bad would do well to stay away from as it has dated terribly. Say It On The Radio is rather odd (why would you try and persuade somebody to dump you on the radio?) but has an addictive sound that really makes best use of Max's voice. Weakness also has that faint whiff of Coldplay (you could imagine Chris Martin singing this). Personal Soldier is stuffed full of musical and vocal military styling but sounds a little contrived for it. You can almost imagine what the five of them would be doing on stage for this one. Made is a little non-descript for a Taio Cruz song and surprisingly not as club-oriented as you might expect.

                  Some of the album is a little excruciating. Penned by Greg Laswell, Hi & Low is arguably one of the more credible on the album but suffers from a rather insipid sound and a plonking piano arrangement that doesn't really go anywhere. Golden is a bit painful too. Max gets a bit carried away and tries to cover too much range vocally and it's all a bit off-putting. There are excruciating bits of songs that are otherwise OK, too. Jay gets a terrible solo in the middle of Heart Vacancy where he appears to be trying to sing with his foreskin caught in his zipper. Likewise, lyrically, some of the songs leave a little to be desired. In All Time Low, for example, the boys profess just how strong their love is because they'll do anything if they're 'late for work, a vital presentation.' Such commitment!

                  ==Final Verdict==

                  Certainly not the most credible or revolutionary album of the year, The Wanted is, however, an appealing and likeable debut. The group's appeal is broader than most other boy bands on the market and although the album is certainly tame, there's a likeable aloofness about these five guys that makes them infinitely more appealing than the likes of Westlife and JLS. Boy bands really need to look good, move well and sound OK. The Wanted capably ticked those three boxes.

                  Recommended

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                  • Bad Education (DVD) / DVD / 44 Readings / 40 Ratings
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                    16.12.2010 21:59
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                    Superb, atmospheric and classy storytelling

                    This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation. This is a Spanish film originally released as La Mala Educacion.

                    ==The Story==

                    In 1980s Madrid, film director Enrique Goded is struggling to find inspiration for his new movie when a stranger arrives at his office. Although his assistant tries to dismiss the man, the stranger is adamant that he knows Enrique and insists that he sees him. When the man introduces himself as a childhood friend named Ignacio, Enrique is at once overcome with memories of his first love and ushers the man in for coffee. It transpires that Ignacio is now a down-at-heel actor looking for work, but has also brought with him a story that he has written called 'The Visit', which he believes Enrique will find suitable as a film narrative. Enrique agrees to read the story and promises to get back in touch with Ignacio.

                    What follows becomes more complex and intriguing than Enrique could ever have imagined. Shrouded in mystery, Ignacio's storyline depicts events from Enrique's childhood and explains what happened to Ignacio after the two were separated at school. With themes of abuse and sexuality, the story captures Enrique's imagination but leaves him with many unanswered questions. It's only when he goes about investigating things in person that he finds himself at the centre of an ever-deepening mystery....

                    ==Curiouser and Curiouser==

                    Another film reviewer once said that after he watched Bad Education, he could only compare the experience to watching 100 years of cinematic history crammed into a two-hour movie. He wasn't wrong. Bad Education is a complex, multi-layered storyline that takes inspiration from many other notable films and genres, but weaves them together in an intoxicating and sensual mixture of so many things. In Bad Education, you'll find comedy, drama, mystery, suspense, romance, film noir and probably more besides and it's testament to the technical skills of the writer/director Pedro Almodovar that the finished product is so coherent. It's only when the final credits roll and everything is beautifully wrapped up that you can reflect on the complexity of what has gone before.

                    This is very much a narrative within a narrative. Realistically, nobody is quite what he or she seems to be, especially at the start of the film when what appears to be a relatively simple meeting quickly develops into something else. Rather like Christopher Nolan's Memento, the film segues one chronology into another, initially in a rather puzzling way, which then gradually unfolds and becomes clearer. However, unlike the aforementioned Nolan movie, what makes Bad Education a little more challenging is that it the writer is able to fool the audience into one perception of who the characters are, before switching things around and demonstrating how wrong they were. Bad Education is rather like a puzzle box within a puzzle box. It's ostensibly a film about a film director, reading a story in which he features, which then reveals itself to be a very different kind of story from what we first believed. What we saw initially as a flashback actually holds a very different place in the chronology of events - and the pleasure here is gradually figuring it all out.

                    Almodovar makes things a little easier for us. One particular segment, which is interspersed with events taking place in our perception of 'now' is denoted by a shrinking frame, which seems to draw curtains in on the picture as though we were watching something on the stage. That aside, despite some relatively complex plot developments, this isn't a particularly difficult film to follow after you have settled into it, and it's so absorbing that rather than finding the structure irritating, it's actually very endearing. Almodovar masterfully handles the plot twists too. He doesn't go down the Shyamalan route of building the film up to one jaw-dropping denouement, instead favouring gentle nudges throughout the narrative, peppered with occasional revelations that leave the audience feeling slightly bemused. Almodovar seems to appreciate that audiences like to be tantalised and entertained, but has no intention of whipping the rug out from under their feet when they've made the investment of watching ninety minutes of intrigue before hand. As such, Almodovar is a rewarding writer. The audience gets the full return on the emotion invested in Almodovar's characters.

                    ==What Do We Learn?==

                    Trying to establish what Bad Education is all about is largely folly. This isn't really a film with a strong message or morality lesson. It's an intriguing character drama, which gradually reveals itself to be something of a mystery story but you don't feel that Almodovar is trying to be too clever here. It's a very reflective work. Like many of Almodovar's stories, themes of sexuality and abuse are certainly at the heart of the storyline here, but it would be wrong to suggest that this is a film about gay men or abuse in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the way in which the press seized upon these ideas when the film was released was wholly inappropriate. Much of the film's subtlety and gentle humanity seems to have been eradicated by sensationalist reviews and commentaries condemning the film's approach to perceived controversial issues.

                    Actually, the film's 15-certificate probably gives away the fact that this film is nowhere near as graphic or controversial as you might imagine. There are occasional sex scenes, but it feels as though it's the fact that they're between two men that makes them 'unsuitable'. They're actually very tame indeed. Had the sex been taking place between a man and a woman, few would have even batted an eyelid and it seems almost insulting that the film has developed a certain infamy due to content that really doesn't deserve it. This is certainly a story about relationships and identity. Indeed, many of the characters undergo several identity changes throughout the film, notably the adult Ignacio who turns up at Enrique's door at the start of the film. The most resonant themes here seem to be around how people perceive one another and how that can change. It's also seeped in love and romance. Ignacio and Enrique clearly had strong feelings for each other as boys, and it's quite curious to observe the unrequited love that is taking place around them as others become devoted to them but are largely ignored.

                    Visually, it's as lovely as anything else that has come from Almodovar. There's a richness to Almodovar's work that is reminiscent of so many classic films and this doesn't 'feel' like a modern film. That's partly because the film is set in the 1980s, so very obvious contemporary objects are missing but the film almost feels like a sumptuous period drama. It's full of colour and life, from the beautiful Spanish countryside to the exotic transsexual stage shows and then to the gorgeous location filming used for the Catholic school of Ignacio and Enrique's childhood. Music is also used to great effect, with lots of period sounds and a wonderful, dramatic score that introduces the film with a sense of Hitchcock about it. As a Spanish language film, Bad Education is, of course, subtitled but the translation is superb and very easy to follow. There are occasional errors but the translation clearly evokes the right sort of tone that the original language is trying to convey.

                    ==Who's Who==

                    It always seems unfair to say that a good film is made outstanding by one particular performance, because it's the sum of so many parts but it's hard not to lavish praise on the lead actor here, Gael Garcia Bernal. In fairness, it's partly thanks to the complexity of the roles that he plays here, but he's still utterly absorbing. Bernal fits the bill of a classic film noir villain here, with pretty, irresistible features betraying a darker, more manipulative core and he pulls it off perfectly. For Bernal, it's a demanding role. His character undergoes a series of changes and veers from being a relatively ordinary, cheerful guy to a more sombre, pensive person and then also has to be a transvestite club artiste. Bernal is perfectly suited to this kind of big screen ambiguity. There's something inherently intoxicating about the way he looks, moves and speaks and he simply commands the camera's attention from start to finish.

                    There are other strong performances too. Fele Martinez requires far more restraint as film director Enrique but there's a simmering pain beneath the surface here that lends itself well to the character as he gradually starts to learn what is going on. His childhood counterpart is depicted strongly by Raul Garcia Forneiro who seems genuinely heartbroken when he says goodbye to his friend. Alberto Ferreiro, who also plays Enrique (for reasons that can't be explained here) sums up the film's beauty and looks stunning alongside Gale Garcia Bernal, which is no mean feat. Lluis Homar, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Manuel Berenguer, apparently dealing with the ultimate internal conflict and certainly convincing the audience of it.

                    ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

                    Overall, the DVD presentation here is slightly disappointing. Technically, it's probably acceptable. The picture transfer here is rich and reasonably detailed although there are slightly patchy areas in the quality. The picture doesn't seem quite as sharp as it could be and seems to be crying out for high definition, although the colour transfer here is pretty good. The soundtrack is certainly good enough, with no dips and peaks in volume thanks to a reasonably steady pace, tone and volume of dialogue. Sound isn't such an important part of this movie, but it's still crisp and resonant across the range of speakers.

                    The special features let the presentation down here, through. For a complex, and technically superior production like this, you'd expect a better range of special features. (On a laptop computer, the menu design is such that you can't find the play button, by the way, so that's quite irritating to start with.)

                    Deleted Scenes - these form a segment of the movie that was completely deleted. You can see why and, in actual fact, these scenes don't seem to make much sense in the context of the final film.

                    Making of montage - this is probably the most inferior behind the scenes feature you'll ever find. It's around a minute and a half long and features a handful of clips set to music.

                    International press books - a series of artwork galleries and PDF files containing press material. These can only be accessed on a PC or Mac and to be honest, they're of very limited interest.

                    Trailers and TV Spots - a whole sub-menu of trailers and TV spots in English and Spanish but not something that many viewers would find of any real interest.

                    Sadly, there's no commentary and nothing very substantial to sit alongside the film, which is very disappointing. You'd expect the opportunity for insight here to be enormous.

                    ==El PlipPlop Says==

                    Bad Education is a wonderful, mesmerising film full of colour, drama and emotion. The complex structure doesn't make this hard to understand and the characters are so absorbing that you can forgive them for some of their indiscretions. Press hype over the content here is totally excessive and it's a shame that reviewers had to focus on the (limited) sexual content at the expense of such masterful storytelling.

                    Highly recommended

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                    • More +
                      03.12.2010 11:04
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                      Beautiful war time mystery and romance

                      This is a review of the film and region 2 DVD presentation. This is a French film originally released as Un Long Dimanche De Fiancailles.

                      ==The Story==

                      In World War 1, five very different French men are led to their deaths through the trenches of the battlefield. United in their desperation to escape the war zone, all five men have been court marshalled for self-mutilation, intended to enable them to retire from the war. When their sentence is passed, they are sent out into No Man's Land without food or weapons and left to fend for themselves.

                      After the War, a country girl named Mathilde lives in a rural part of France with her aunt and uncle and dreams of the return of her sweetheart Manech. Manech was drafted up to serve in the military but when news of his apparent treason reaches Mathilde she is utterly heartbroken. Whilst her aunt and uncle try to convince her that she must assume that Manech is dead, Mathilde is somehow unable to accept that the love of her life is dead. She travels to Paris, where she meets up with a famous private detective and hires him to discover what happened to Manech. This sets off a chain of events that reveal a far bigger mystery than Mathilde could ever have expected but every lead brings her closer and closer to tragedy.

                      ==A Very Beautiful Film==

                      The trouble with film reviews is that, reasonably enough, you have to justify your opinion. You have to explain what was good about a film you liked. You have to devour a poor film and expose its every inadequacy. You can write hundreds or even thousands of words that do just that, but sometimes, every now and again, you feel compelled simply to say ' this is an astoundingly beautiful film.' Sometimes, you don't really want to say much more than that, so for those who are prepared to accept a simple judgment, this reviewer nails his colours to the mast and simply tells you that this is an astoundingly beautiful film and you should watch it forthwith. For those of you who need something more, read on.

                      With a narrative set after World War 1, A Very Long Engagement is a delightful combination of so many things. The cover art is actually a little misleading. With a tender image of Manech and Mathilde embracing, you could be forgiven for thinking that is simply a romantic love story, but whilst it's full of love and romance, it's so much more than that. It's a detective story, full of twists, surprises and excitement. It's a tender drama, depicting the life of a quirky and very appealing young woman and how she copes with loss and grief. It's full of comedy too. At times, there are real laugh out loud moments and like anything else in real life, the tragedy is frequently offset by humour. More surprisingly, however, it's a pertinent commentary on the hypocrisy and folly of war, most notably the trenches. It may be more than two hours in running time, but it's such an utterly immersive experience that the viewer simply loses all track of time.

                      ==A Very Sumptuous Look and Feel==

                      Visually, this is almost certainly the finest of Jeunet's films to date. You could write about the look and feel of this film for hours and probably still find more things to talk about. Jeunet's direction and Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography are simply an astonishing treat. Whether it's the sun-filled rural charms of France, or the horrific, bleak, death-filled landscape of the trenches, everything is recreated here in immaculate detail and beauty. The camera swoops down and across and through and around and over and under in so many innovative ways that the picture comes startlingly to life. The contrast between peacetime and wartime is, unsurprisingly, delivered through colour and tone, with lots of golden, sun-kissed colours and warmth in peacetime and a complete evisceration of colour in the trenches. In the trenches, it's as though hope has completely abandoned the location whereas, in spite of what appears to be a personal tragedy, Mathilde's home seems to exude hope and charm. It's almost as though nature instinctively understands the difference between the two locations and Jeunet conjures this up perfectly. In a flashback to the time when one of the five soldiers is signed up, there's a beautiful aerial shot of the farmer and his wife, returning home from the fields with a cart laden with hay. From the other direction, soldiers approach to deliver the news and a gust of wind blows across the scene sending the farmers' orderly bales of hale flying, and leaving the crops around him flattened. It's so simple and yet so effective and amply reminds us of the way in which man's conflict interrupts the fabric of the world around us.

                      The locations are impeccably recreated. The trenches are bleak and soulless, the post-war cities full of bustle and life. Mathilde's beautiful coastal home is full of charm and warmth. But the action is also stylishly recreated within these locations. An aerial attack from a bomber plane across the trenches is superbly recreated through a specific aspect, an assault 'over the top' likewise. Jeunet chooses not to dwell too much on the savagery of the trenches, opting for small details and brief glimpses of the horror as opposed to the full-on approach taken in films like Saving Private Ryan. Ironically, in fact Jeunet and Delbonnel occasionally seem to find beauty in the war-torn landscape. The film is full of flashbacks and in one such sequence, one of the men recollects the moment when two men emerged from a burning war zone, their ammunition on their belts exploding and killing them but showering the place in a spectacular light show. It should be grisly, but Jeunet somehow manages to make it almost artistic, without being gruesome or inappropriate. There are also moments of wonderfully stylish film noir. In one scene depicting a mystery woman murdering an army officer, there's a wonderful moment when she looks knowingly towards the camera and then steps back into the darkness of the room, her face gradually shaded further and further and she disappears into the shadows. This is truly wonderful film making.

                      Special mention must also go to Angelo Badalamenti's original music. Badalamenti's epic score is entirely appropriate to the film. Better known for his work with David Lynch on Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, Badalamenti's music always captures the mood of the film, with lots of grand, epic sequences complemented by more gentle, subtle pieces.

                      ==A Very Curious Tale==

                      The story is engaging and very intriguing. It's a combination of real time drama, interspersed with a series of continual flashbacks, provided by various characters adding their contribution to Mathilde's investigations. This helps maintain a relatively consistent pace and the film is seldom dull. The flashbacks to the trenches frequently inject enough action and pace to give the film a certain level of excitement, but it's really the unfolding mystery that grips the audience. As Mathilde gradually learns more and more of Manet's fate, the writer toys with the audience's emotions as much as he does Mathilde's. Bad news seems to confirm a very tragic end, only to be offset by a shred of possible good news that catalyses the investigation in a different direction. The ending never seems assured. You could never predict whether this would have an uplifting or tragic conclusion and, quite startlingly, the climax is so simple and yet so emotionally moving it's likely to stay with you forever.

                      The devil here is absolutely the detail. The film is based on a very successful novel by Sebastien Japrisot and you can tell that the film's source material is a novel. There's an epic scale to this movie that feels inspired by the written word but it's a reasonably faithful adaptation, utilising the very best elements of the book for the screen. It's full of important details and reflections and Mathilde's narrative simply accentuates the piece rather than dominating it. There's a child-like quality to her ruminations and the way in which she sets herself tests to decide fate ("if I don't break the peel, Manech is alive) is just lovely. It's a very skilful example of a detective story though, too, with lots of clues and red herrings pointing in the direction of one outcome and then lurching towards another. There's even something of a murder mystery, with a mysterious woman depicted murdering selected characters for reasons we're yet to understand. That's why it's so much more than a love story.

                      The social commentary is refined and not pushy here. The film doesn't seem to particularly want to push an anti-war agenda here, partly because where the World Wars are concerned, it has been done so many times before. A Very Long Engagement reflects on some of the personal injustices of this terrible conflict, where nearly a million men died. It reminds us that soldiers were executed simply for being frightened and counts some of the less obvious losses that were suffered.

                      ==A Very Effective Cast==

                      This is probably Audrey Tatou's finest performance to date. Other films have set her in more striking roles (Amelie for example) but here she's so consistently, beautifully 'human' that it's hard not to fall in love with Mathilde yourself. Permanently disabled by a childhood Polio infection, Mathilde is warm, funny, clever and quite cantankerous. She's not afraid to do what needs to be done and her 'just get on with it' attitude compels the audience to want her to succeed in her mission. Tatou (a classic French beauty) has complete mastery of facial expression and utterly convinces us when she is angry, heartbroken, excited or joyful. Mathilde's character dominates the film from start to finish and Tatou is simply outstanding.

                      She's supported, of course, by an excellent cast all round. Gaspard Ulliel is a perfect choice for her sweetheart Manech. It's not until you see Ulliel in this movie that you understand why he was such a poor choice for Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. Ulliel is the very definition of innocence. Even in the trenches, it's apparent that he is simply a scared, vulnerable young man and his youthful, wide-eyed features just seem to accentuate this. Otherwise there a host of inventive and bright characters here, including Ticky Holgado's eccentric private investigator and Marion Cotillard as a mysterious and embittered stranger. There's also a surprising turn here from Jodie Foster (complete with excellent French accent), who has a short role as one of the women that Mathilde must speak to in order to learn the truth.

                      ==The Region 2 DVD Presentation==

                      This film looks superb on DVD, though one could only imagine how hi-definition could further improve this on Blu-Ray. In a film so full of contrast, the picture transfer handles the colours and the darkness beautifully. The sharpness of the picture is spot on (though it's possible that experienced eyes might detect some imperfections). This works well on both a big screen or through the intimacy of a laptop or computer. It's a very scalable production (though was probably at its best in the cinema.) The soundtrack is certainly acceptable but probably doesn't make as much use of the surround sound as you might expect. The actions scenes in the trenches are not as noisy and dominating as they could be and the rural settings could have used sound a little more atmospherically.

                      The 2-disc presentation boasts an impressive range of special features and the quality of the film probably demands this.

                      The director's commentary - this is sadly very hard work because the commentary is in French. For English speakers, this means that you will be watching a French film with English subtitles, with further subtitles to reflect the commentary. It's unlikely that anyone would sit right through this. For two hours, it's almost impossible to take in everything that's being said, which is a great shame because the director's passion for the film fills the commentary with insight and observation.

                      A Year at the Front - this is an impressive documentary that fully analyses the entire film making process. It's 73 minutes long, for starters, which could justify a DVD in its own right. The documentary covers pretty much everything and if you enjoyed the film, you'll also enjoy the content here. Actually, even if you haven't seem the film, for anyone interested in the film making process, this is essential viewing.

                      Parisian Scenes - this one's shorter at 13 minutes but no less interesting. This shows how the makers re-created Paris and it's another one suited more to those who are interested in the technical side of filmmaking.

                      Before the Explosion - this is 12-minute feature looking specifically at a scene involving a Zeppelin explosion. It's one of the film's most memorable moments and it's surprising just how much work went into it.

                      Deleted/extended scenes - there are fourteen different scenes here, most of which are alternate versions of existing scenes. Realistically, after the other features, this is probably overload but supports the very insightful director and writer we hear on the commentary.

                      ==A Very PlipPlop Verdict==

                      This is a beautiful, moving and engaging film. Combining different genres into a satisfying mixture there's something here that should appeal to everyone Jeunet perfectly balances the humorous with the profound in a way that humanises the story and he'll have you guessing right up until the very last scene.

                      Highly recommended

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                        27.11.2010 19:19
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                        Health supplement that includes saw palmetto, a good prostate health booster for men

                        Since I started working out again in June of this year, I've resisted the opportunity to stuff my body with every supplement and potion going. There's a huge market out there for men's body building products and, to be honest, it's really difficult to know where to start. I use a daily protein shake that contains creatine, because this supplements muscle growth and I've found that I've managed to put on about 2 stone of lean muscle in that time. Due to my height, that's a reasonable achievement (it's far harder for tall men to build up due to the size of their muscles).

                        A friend of mine who has been into fitness for years recommended me FSC's Formula 600 Plus supplements. He knew that I wouldn't be keen to stuff my body with anything too synthetic but has found good benefits himself from taking this supplement. I've been taking Formula 600 Plus for around two months now.

                        The main ingredients are:

                        Vitamin B6
                        Zinc
                        Saw Palmetto

                        Vitamin B6 is a vital nutrient. It plays a major role in our immune systems and contributes to the in the production of serotonin in our brains. It's therefore considered beneficial in dealing with stress as well as helping maintain general health.

                        Saw Palmetto is a very interesting substance. The extract comes from berries of small palm trees found in North America and comprises different fatty acids and sterols. Saw Palmetto has a number of reputed health benefits. It's used to treat prostatic hyperplasia, a serious condition in men where the prostate gland becomes swollen and inhibits the flow of urine. It has a number of other reputed benefits including help to prevent male pattern hair loss, treating bladder infections and helping with bronchitis. It's marketed specifically at men as boosting sex drive but more crucially, it helps build muscle tissue.

                        Zinc is one of those all-round minerals that seem to be good at everything. It helps boost your immune system, is good for your digestion, helps wounds and acne scars heal better and more besides. It's also really good for maintaining healthy skin. I'd figured that I might have a zinc deficiency purely due to having lots of white spots/marks on my fingernails.

                        Formula 600 Plus also contains a host of other amino acids and natural plant extracts. It's entirely suitable for vegetarians and vegans and only contains traces of protein, fat, carbohydrate and energy so can be taken without interfering with any kind of diet. It's also suitable for people with allergies to dairy, soy, gluten, wheat or corn. It's not recommended for children, but is otherwise pretty much suitable for everyone.

                        The capsules are relatively large and it is recommended that you take one or two daily with food. I tend to take one with my breakfast and then sometimes one in the evening with dinner so my dose wavers between one and two per day. The capsules are relatively easy to swallow with water. They don't really taste of anything except, perhaps, that 'capsule' taste you get for drugs in little plastic caplets. In the jar, there's a moderate, slightly herbal smell but nothing particularly distinctive.

                        So what has my experience been of taking Formula 600 Plus so far? Well, there are definitely some areas if improvement that I would attribute to this supplement.

                        The zinc content certainly seems to have seen benefits. Those white marks on my fingernails have pretty much cleared up completely so I'm satisfied that I'm getting enough zinc now. My skin is looking pretty good too. In fairness, I spend a lot of time on male grooming products and moisturise, cleanse and exfoliate pretty much daily. However, I was previously still seeing the odd pimple or spot on my face and I think there is a definite improvement.

                        I'm seeing reasonably good results from my attempts to gain muscle. I've started to see a notable increase in my upper body over the last few weeks. Of course, this is largely due to the exercise that I'm taking, plus the protein supplement but it's possible that the Formula 600 Plus is helping too. I'd probably reserve judgement on this until I'd been using it for longer than eight weeks though in fairness as there are a number of other factors to consider. But so far, certainly, so good.

                        The most striking thing is that (touch wood) I seem to be almost entirely immune to colds at the moment. All of my friends and colleagues have recently been struck down with one cold after another and are largely astounded that I've not yet followed suit. I've read a lot of studies that say regular exercise helps keep colds and flu at bay, plus I paid for a flu vaccination, but that would still leave me susceptible to colds. Indeed, I've even slept with somebody who had a really bad cold and I didn't catch a thing.

                        The other health benefits of saw palmetto are harder to comment on. I don't suffer from an enlarged prostate but of course with these regular supplements I may now help reduce that risk. I'm not really losing my hair either so no comment on that one. Sex drive? Maybe - I've certainly been 'up for it' a lot more lately, but I've always found that going to the gym makes me really horny so I'm not sure there's a link there.

                        A bottle of 120 of these capsules retails for around £18 on the high street but you can get that for £13 if you hold a Gold Card in GNC (which is currently free). There are no significant potential side effects highlighted with Formula 600 Plus and I certainly haven't seen anything untoward since I've been taking them. I'm definitely happy to keep taking the product. I'm pretty convinced I've seen genuine benefits from this and I'm coming up that age when men become more prone to prostate problems. I'd certainly rather go down the prevention route than be faced with having to cure something.

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                          24.11.2010 23:36
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                          Shrek - out with a whimper rather than a bang

                          ==The Story So Far==

                          Whilst our favourite ogre Shrek was able to rescue his beloved Princess Fiona from a terrible curse, unfinished business remains. Fiona's parents, King Harold and Queen Lillian had been poised to sign a contract with the evil Rumpelstiltskin, which would have handed the kingdom of Far Far Away over to him forever. The contract was never signed, but that doesn't mean that Rumpelstiltskin has forgotten how close he came, or how much he wants the kingdom. It has also given him several years to blame Shrek for missing out on his dream and developing a vengeful reaction to the merest mention of the green ogre's name.

                          Shrek, meanwhile, isn't enjoying domestic bliss with his family as much as he might have expected. The attention of being a local celebrity is hard to deal with and he finds himself yearning for the simplicity of his days in the swamp. When a birthday party for his children goes badly wrong, Shrek stomps off into the distance, bumping into Rumpelstiltskin along the way. As Shrek pours his heart out to the conniving little get, Rumpelstiltskin tells him that he can give him what he wants. If Shrek agrees to swap just one day from his childhood that he will never remember, Rumpelstiltskin will give him one day of his freedom back again. The contract is signed and Shrek finds himself back in a world where everyone fears him again.

                          But his delight is short-lived. That 'one day' from his childhood turns out to be the day he was born and if he can't find a way out of the contract by the end of the day, he will cease to have existed forever. Worse still, in this parallel universe, Rumpelstiltkin is now king - and he isn't planning on giving the crown up very easily...

                          ==Are You Sitting Comfortably?==

                          In the late 1990s, cinema audiences were being wowed by a new generation of animated movies. Films like Toy Story and Monsters Inc were revolutionising the way in which audiences perceived full-length animation, with groundbreaking digital effects and a new 'blockbuster' status that had been absent since the heady days of the Disney classics. Films like Toy Story worked well on two levels. They were hugely entertaining for children and young members of the family, but writers would invest in subtle, more adult humour to keep their parents entertained along the way. As Pixar started to billions of business at the box office, its biggest rival Dreamworks was planning how to compete in what had become a very lucrative market.

                          Dreamworks had seen limited success in its previous attempts to enter the market. Initially, Antz and The Prince of Egypt had done good business at the box office, but there was nothing that had captured the imagination of audiences in the same way that the likes of Toy Story had done. In 2000, Dreamworks formed Dreamworks Animation, a subsidiary dedicated to these feature-length animations. The company's first major release was Shrek in 2001, and with a worldwide gross of nearly $500 million, Shrek eclipsed anything that Dreamworks had ever seen before. Shrek played perfectly to the Pixar recipe, combining an imaginative, childish fairytale story, with a host of crazy, memorable characters and lots of subtle humour for the adults. Shrek 2 followed in 2004, nearly doubling the worldwide gross of the first movie at $919 million. Shrek The Third was still a commercial success in 2007, but failed to beat the box office success of Shrek 2 and critics weren't as enthused by the third instalment as the previous two. Many believed that this would be the final outing in Far Far Away Land, but finally Shrek Forever After (tagged The Final Chapter) was released in 2010.

                          ==So How Does It All Compare?==

                          For director Mike Mitchell, there was logic in taking on directorial duties for Shrek 4. With a background rooted in comedy (he directed Deuce Bigalow: American Gigolo) and family films (Surviving Christmas and Sky High) Mitchell had experiences that could realistically have combined pretty effectively. Taking on a new instalment in an extremely successful franchise is often a bit of a risk, but Mitchell has stayed pretty true to the formula here, which means that there's nothing groundbreakingly different here. Fans of the previous three films probably couldn't be offended by the fourth one, which, narratively, almost takes the same journey as the first film of the four. Arguably, there's a lot of sense in retreading a proven path, commercially, if not creatively.

                          Of course, Forever After capitalises most on the success of the earlier films by telling the sort of story that only works with an established franchise. By creating a 'parallel universe' type of story, the writers are able to take all the characters that audiences grew to love in the first three films and throw them into new situations where they are perhaps the complete opposites of their real world counterparts. In the parallel universe, for example, Puss is now grotesquely obese and it's the contrast between the new podgy puss and the old sleek one that provides a whole new level of humour. Parallel universe story lines, of course, also help avoid the pitfalls of having to observe continuity too closely. You can pretty much get away with anything if you're creating some kind of magical re-write.

                          What that doesn't mean is that Shrek Forever After is just more of the same. There are plenty of fresh ideas here and the writers sensibly combine the welcome familiarity of franchise favourites like Puss and Donkey with some new characters that allow the audience to feel as though they've invested in a brand new instalment. Then, of course, there's the addition of a new technical element, with the film presented in cinemas in glorious 3D - a growing trend to help boost interest in existing franchises and adopted across genres, with the likes of Final Destination, Saw et al all trying their hand. It's also fair to say that Shrek Forever After is a rather darker production than the previous three chapters, both visually and in tone. The writers maintain the 'fairy tale' concept of the first three films, but it's a little more fraught with peril here and because much of the action takes place underground, there's a slightly more subdued feel to it.

                          The fourth film makes consistently good use of music too, in much the same way as the three films before it. The original music uses previous themes in a new arrangement, which encourages a subtle sense of familiarity. The original them crops up for the big action scenes, but otherwise it's a curiously effective mixture of old sounds produced in a new way. The film also features a selection of contemporary tracks, another successful feature of the first three films, with some hilarious timing, even if the choices aren't always consistent with one another.

                          ==The Animation==

                          Realistically, Dreamworks' animation style hasn't really moved on that far in the nine years that we've been watching Shrek films. The look and feel of Shrek Forever After isn't particularly removed from the first film. That maybe testament to the fact that the early animation was pretty ground breaking, but whereas Pixar films are continually trying something new, the Shrek franchise opts to stick to what works. As such, there's the same rubbery feel to most of the characters in Shrek 4 that is rather less impressive than some of Pixar's greatest creations. Everybody pretty much moves in the same way in Shrek and despite the colourful, fairy tale setting there's often an absence of eye-popping detail that you would have probably got from a Pixar version. Puss and Donkey remain the most striking technical creations, notably because of the fact that they're furry and Dreamworks have created that fur in a way that leaves the audience wanting to reach in and run their hands through it. The way in which eye and mouth movements are depicted throughout the Shrek franchise remains consistent and is probably the area that compares least favourably with the competition.

                          Where Shrek 4 excels, curiously enough, is more in the backgrounds and scenery than in the characters themselves. Some of the textures and objects presented are borderline photo-realistic, particularly where the makers have used glass. Such objects reflect light gorgeously and there are some outstanding moments where the film just looks beautiful. The dark setting of the film now requires more investment in candle lit or in moody, darkened skies and the makers have got this off perfectly. Light is consistently used to try and convey a certain mood, with Shrek's swamp home full of light, warmth and happiness compared to Rumpelstiltskin's fortress, which is dark and oppressive. There are also lots of eye-catching details that you might miss the first time around.

                          ==And They All Lived Unhappily Ever After==

                          Shrek 4 combines new and old conventions quite well There are occasional rather inspired variations on existing story telling techniques that betray a sense of creativity that isn't consistently carried throughout the film. The early narration, for example, is something closely associated with fairy tale movies, but has a twist up its sleeve that subsequently turns the thing on its head. Thereafter, however, it becomes a rather more conventional fairy tale that, whilst full of fun and energy, doesn't have that shrewd intelligence that helped earlier instalments excel.

                          It's all very much inspired by the likes of Frank Capra's 'It's A Wonderful Life' because it's a story that helps a 'man' realise just how well off he is (emotionally) via his experience in a parallel universe. It is, of course, rather more humorously presented here and the emphasis of the fairy tale doesn't really come to the fore until the final act. Prior to that, it's simply a case of Shrek re-acquainting himself with new versions of his old friends and all the merriment that this entails. In a departure from previous chapters, this means that Shrek 4 is almost certainly more of a children's film. There's an absence of wry, adult humour here and although the adults will better appreciate the Wonderful Life connotations, the romp here seems more focused towards the little people than before. That doesn't make it a bad movie, but it does mean that some audience members will be disappointed.

                          The 'alternate reality' versions of the characters are consistently successful. The only twist for Donkey is that he doesn't know who Shrek is, which ensures that his sassy banter is frequently given the limelight. Creating a fat version of Puss is an inspired creative decision as it essentially combines the sly mannerisms of the old Puss, but entraps them in a bloated new body. The alternate Fiona is probably the most logical choice too as here she is presented as a feisty resistance leader against the land's oppressive rule and, more importantly, she's not impressed with Shrek at all. That means, you guessed it, that they have to fall in love all over again. Other characters remain largely as they were, including the welcome return of the Gingerbread Boy and The Three Little Pigs.

                          ==Who's Who==

                          Rumpelstiltskin is certainly the best 'new' creation of this production. He's that classic movie bad guy who isn't actually particularly good at being a bad guy, which means you can't really help liking him. His appearance doesn't help, of course, with a shocking mane of red hair that makes him look rather like a Troll toy - not exactly villainous, let's face it. Walt Dohrn (who wrote the previous two instalments) voices the character perfectly and his tiny stature, plus the fact that he has a pet goose, means that he never really feels like that much of a threat. But Dohrn does the pantomime villain particularly well and gives Rumpelstiltskin something of a Napoleon complex.

                          Mike Myers retains the vocal responsibilities for Shrek here and just about manages to get a decent Scottish accent across. Like previous instalments, however, Puss and Donkey far outshine the green hero, simply because they are far more comical. Eddie Murphy remains the best part of the franchise with his voicing of Shrek's consistently hilarious four-hoofed friend. It sometimes feels as though the animators have invested all their time in Donkey, with his facial expressions matching the intonations in Murphy's delivery perfectly. He remains an inspired creation. Puss isn't as prominent this time around and the new fat version may not appeal to everyone, but Antonio Banderas is humorous in an entirely new way. Puss even gets to pull his famous doe eyes, surely one of the highlights of the entire series.

                          ==PlipPlop Verdict==

                          Fans of the previous instalments will certainly find enough here to entertain and amuse. It's simply not enough of a departure from the first three to offend or upset and by taking a combination of existing material and adding in new stuff, the recipe is reasonably successful. Of the four films, this one is almost certainly more likely to appeal to the youngest demographic, who will enjoy the film for what it is, but adults that have previously enjoyed the subtler content may find it a little too superficial. As franchises go, this is a relatively unimpressive end but the fact remains that, actually, we could quite easily (and quite possibly) see another instalment yet.

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                            21.11.2010 11:02
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                            The best £1.79 you'll spend this week

                            Year of Release: February 2010
                            Developed By: PopCap Games, Inc.
                            Version reviewed: 1.3
                            Rated: 9+
                            Requirements: iOS 3.0 and above, compatible with iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch

                            ==About Plants vs Zombies==

                            Plants vs Zombies started life as a PC game, designed for both the Windows and Mac operating systems. Categorised as a "tower defence" game, it's a very light-hearted strategy game in which you must deploy an increasing range of different plants to see of an increasing range of zombies that are trying to invade your home. The game was inspired by a number of other successful video games. Warcraft III, for example provided the inspiration for the different plant species, which replicate the different tower defence modes and, according to the developer, other genres had some influence too. A scene in the movie Swiss Family Robinson provided the inspiration for the potato mines, replicating a scene in the film where the family defends itself against pirates.

                            The iPhone release of Plants vs Zombies was one of the most successful iPhone app launches to date. 300,000 copies were sold in the first nine days and it continues to frequently top the games charts to this day.

                            ==What do you have to do?==

                            Zombies are invading your home. With a little help from your (slightly incoherent) neighbour Crazy Dave you must strategically repel the invaders with a series of different plants. The plants can be arranged in distinct rows along your back garden, swimming pool or roof and you must carefully choose which plant is best placed to take out each type of zombie. Zombies gradually appear from the right-hand side of the screen and as the game progresses they appear in greater volumes and include zombies that are harder and harder to kill.

                            In order to get the plants zombie killing, you must first earn sunshine points that will allow you to buy individual plants. Sunshine points appear on the screen sporadically, but you can accelerate your collection by planting sunflowers, which give off sunshine points far more frequently. The more powerful the plants that you want to deploy, the more expensive they are in sunshine points, and once you've bought and planted one, there is a delay before that particular plant becomes available again. The more expensive the plant, the more time it takes for it to appear in your menu again.

                            A bar at the top of the screen shows your progress in terms of how many of the zombies you have killed. During each level, huge waves of zombies will occasionally be deployed. You always get a few seconds' notice of this and there is always one final wave before the end of the level. As the zombies advance, the objective is to try and take them out before they reach your plants as once they get close enough, they can start eating the plants. In a worse case scenario, they will potentially eat all the plants in a particular row and make it to the house. Your final defence is a lawnmower, which will release itself and kill every zombie in its path, but then the house is unprotected and you must plant quickly to build up the defence again. If you fail, the zombies will eat your brains and the level is over.

                            As you unlock each level, you also unlock a new plant, with a new ability. You are only permitted to have a certain number of plants available to you in each level, so part of the strategy is about choosing the right plants before you get started. You have a 'preview' of the zombies that will appear but there is also one new zombie per level, and until you have completed the level once, you won't know what it is that can kill the zombie. There are certain tried and tested plants, some of which are pretty useful against any kind of zombie, and some of which are essential to keep those sunshine points coming.

                            There are around forty levels in total, most of which operate on the same basis but there are also bonus levels. In the bonus levels, the principle stays largely the same but you don't have to buy plants. They are presented to you on a conveyor belt that runs up the screen to the left. This limits the choice of plants available to you and you must think carefully about the speed and order in which you deploy them. There are also three or four different terrains. Early levels just feature your back garden, but then this is expanded to include a pool in you garden. Some of the levels are then set at night (harder to get sunshine points) and some in the fog before things finally move to the roof. At the end of this stage there is one big boss to finish off. Once complete, the game is effectively unlocked and you can go back and play any of the other levels to earn sunshine points and coins. These help you buy special prizes from Crazy Dave's store. Prizes include the ability to choose more plants or enhanced versions of existing plants.

                            ==Gameplay on the iPhone==

                            The entire game is operated using the iPhone's touch screen. That makes the game very easy to play pretty much anywhere. It's perfect, for example, for car journeys or train journeys where you might be sat in a fairly confined space because you just sit with the iPhone in front of you tapping the screen as required. The game is played with the handset in landscape mode, with the zombies approaching from the right and your house on the left.

                            Playing the game is very easy. It's simply a process of tapping the screen multiple times. Plants are selected with a single tap and planted with another. Tapping the little balls of sunlight that drift over the screen collects sunshine points and it's the same for any coins that appear. The only moderately complex task is using the spade at the top of the screen to re-plant your weaponry. You have to tap the spade once to indicate that you want to use it, then tap the plant you want to remove and then re-plant something new - a process of four taps in total. If you're running out of time, it's quite easy to get this wrong and either dig up the wrong plant or plant something in the wrong place.

                            Realistically, this is one of the easier games on the iPhone. The speed with which the zombies assault you builds up quite gradually and once you've figured out a strategy it's fairly easy to repel them. As the levels progress, they do get harder and some will take a couple of attempts but it wouldn't be unusual to be able to complete all forty levels in the first attempt. This is really a game targeted at players that want something relatively absorbing but still easy to pick up and put down again and it creates a fairly subdued gaming experience compared to other far faster games.

                            The game probably doesn't make as much use of the iPhone as it could. It would be useful, for example, to be able to cancel a level or restart a level simply by shaking the handset or possibly to delete all selected plants and start again. Your progress is maintained as you go along but there is no capability to share achievements and scores via gaming networks. The game isn't compatible with Apple's Game Center, for example, nor is there any capability to link up with Facebook or Twitter. This is a bit of a missed opportunity because the game features a host of 'achievements' that are earned by completing certain tasks within the game. You can earn the 'Penny Pincher' achievement by picking up 30 coins in a row on a single level without missing any, for example, or you earn 'Zoombologist' by discovering the Yeti zombie. These achievements add greater longevity to the game and encourage replay but would be even more popular if you could be ranked against other players. There's no multiplayer mode here, either, which is fairly logical (it's difficult to see how that could work) but again reduces the social appeal.

                            Updates are relatively infrequent and limited in scope. The last update added 12 new achievements but it would be nice to see more updates with additional levels to extend the basic scope of the game. A previous version of the game had a fairly recurrent bug that caused the game to crash but this was addressed in release 1.3 and the game is now very stable. At 43 MB it's not going to zap too much of your memory either. You can also download a walkthrough app but to be honest, I'm astounded that anyone would really need that - it's just not that tricky.

                            ==The Design==

                            The game is pretty glorious from a visual aspect. The plants and zombies are equally hilarious and exciting. Plants boast a range of capabilities from throwing watermelon bombs, to exploding in a huge crater or dragging zombies underwater. The zombies are probably the most amusing feature, as they become increasingly bizarre. There's a Dancing Zombie, for example, that's kitted out in a big 70s Afro wig and flares and when he starts dancing, he raises hordes of other dancing zombies around his feet. There's also a Jack-in-the-Box zombie who plays Pop Goes the Weasel before eventually, unexpectedly exploding. An enormous part of the game's appeal is the variety of plants and zombies because it's really good fun unlocking them through each level.

                            It's a very colourful, quirky game to. The graphics aren't impressive compared to other games and genres, but it's all very bold, simple and eye-catching Within the relative constraints of the iPhone screen, the experience rather comes to life and it's very addictive. It's particularly good listened through headphones, because you become more immersed in the music and sound effects. The music is really good, a bizarre combination of eerie and quirky pieces, some of which really get stuck in your head. The sound effects are quite important. You'll hear the zombies before you see them and this can alert you to some particular action you might want to take. There's one zombie that rides a dolphin, for example, and this helps him shoot through the water. As soon as you hear the dolphin noise, you have to prepare yourself to take him out with the appropriate plant weapon.

                            The settings for the sound are a little random. It's possible to have the game playing and listen to your iPod music, for example, but I've yet to fathom out how to do this. The game seems to randomly decide when to do this and it's a little bit irritating to say the least.

                            Although the game carries a 9+ warning, I really don't think there is anything here that would be inappropriate for younger players. The explanation from iTunes is that this is due to infrequent fantasy violence and horror themes but it's never gory and the violence (if you can call it that) is very humorous. If you can call pelting a zombie with cabbages violence then I guess you might want to apply some caution.

                            ==The Final Verdict==

                            This is almost certainly the best game that I've played on the iPhone to date. It's addictive, fun, simple and absorbing and it's also highly adaptive. It's not the sort of game, for example, that requires you to sit for hours on end. You can pick it up and play it in short bursts and it doesn't require enormous levels of concentration either.

                            The design is glorious. It looks superb and the sound effects and music complement this even further. I'd probably rather it was a little harder and/or that there were more levels but this offers scope for a future release. I would describe this as a game with a fairly universal appeal and for the amazing price of £1.79 it's hard to find fault. It's easy to see why this has shifted so many copies.

                            Highly recommended

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                            • East Coast / Transport National / 48 Readings / 42 Ratings
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                              08.11.2010 09:43
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                              Regional railway company linking London and Scotland

                              I've always had something of a love/hate relationship with the East Coast mainline. I love telling everybody how much I hate it. In recent years, the line has passed through three pairs of hands. Initially the franchise was awarded to Great North Eastern Railways (GNER), but was eventually rescued by National Express East Coast after GNER got into trouble, only for NX East Coast to go the same way, leaving the line to fall into the hands of a government-run group called East Coast. In essence, my complaints about the service have remained almost entirely consistent throughout the life span of all three operators but unless somebody considers these issues properly, I fear that we will never get the service that such an important, arterial rail route deserves.

                              The East Coast franchise runs North to South connecting Edinburgh to London King's Cross. It is the major intercity rail operator between London and Leeds and trains up to Scotland also stop in Peterborough, Doncaster, York and Newcastle. Currently, there are also services between Edinburgh and Glasgow but I understand these are to be withdrawn, as the West Coast line now has better connections between London and Glasgow. There are various 'add-ons', including occasional services to Bradford, Aberdeen and Hull, but the two key routes are the London to Edinburgh and London to Leeds lines.

                              The East Coast line boasts one of the best stretches of railway in the UK, in my humble opinion. The journey between Durham and Edinburgh is gorgeous, from the picturesque cathedral at Durham, across the Tyne at Newcastle and along the North East coast, up through Berwick and Northumbria. The line that runs along the coast of Devon and Cornwall is pretty dramatic, but there's something majestic about the coastal stretch of the East Coast line. It's lovely on a sunny day or a dark, cloudy day, when the crashing waves on the shoreline just seem more dramatic. It's a great route for children, who will enjoy all the sights out of the window.

                              The East Coast line, more so than any other, is threatened by and/or competes with other forms of transport. It boasts a much better journey experience than the painful car journey up the M1 but is also often compared on the basis of price and journey time to domestic flights between the two capitals. It remains the most traditional of the operators, offering breakfast or evening meals in a dedicated dining carriage long since discontinued on other lines, and even runs an overnight sleeper between the two capital cities. But as much as this can make the service quite charming, it can also be its undoing.

                              It's often easy to forget that the train operators have responsibility for stations as well as trains. The main stations on the East Coast line are pretty unremarkable and in many cases in need of some attention. London King's Cross is currently going through some major refurbishment works, which have seen the addition of a new platform (called Platform 0 bizarrely) and which will also add new facilities. Kings Cross suffers a little from being overshadowed by St Pancras, which is outstanding, and when you come into King's Cross you can't help be disappointed by the rubbish waiting area and the lack of shops. The first class lounge is reasonably new and well fitted, although, in line with most operators, holders of advance tickets have to pay £5 to use it.

                              At Edinburgh, the station is much nicer. I've always liked the open, bustling feel of Edinburgh Waverley station, they way you take your life in your hands dodging the taxis and guessing which way your train will come in. The facilities are generally better than London King's Cross, although the first class lounge is a bit of an afterthought. You come in through the information desk, where the staff members just look at you, even if you're struggling with about ten bags and the lounge itself is stuffy and smelly. Newcastle and Doncaster aren't much better, either and these things make a big difference if you find yourself stuck there for longer than you expected.

                              The rolling stock is getting on a bit now, but a programme of refurbishment has been underway since the early 2000s, which I understand is now entirely complete. Both the Intercity 125 and Intercity 225 remain in service, the latter with slightly higher top speeds, but both types operate across most routes. The trains are easily the most comfortable across the modern network. The First Great Western 125s have also been refitted, but to incorporate far more seats and far fewer tables and are much more cramped. The Virgin rail services lack the headroom of the East Coast services and both the First Great Western and Virgin train seating is harder, narrower and more uncomfortable in standard class. The East Coast carriages have far more tables than any of their competitors, which is far better for families.

                              The first class accommodation on the East Coast trains is pretty good. There's lot of legroom, the seats can be reclined and every seat has a table. The first class accommodation in the First Great Western services is arguably better, with very comfortable leather seating but I particularly like the fact that on the East Coast services, there are compartments at the end of one of the carriages where there's a screen dividing you from the rest of the train. This is particularly good for privacy, peace and quiet or if you're in a big noisy group, respecting everyone else's privacy, peace and quiet. I find the first class accommodation on Virgin Trains barely different to the standard class. There's more leg room but the seats are still rock hard and uncomfortable.

                              All the carriages on the East Coast line are air-conditioned but this regularly seems to pack up, which is pretty lethal. On a sunny day, without air conditioning, those carriages are nothing more than greenhouses, and if this happens in service, they'll almost completely evacuate the carriage if it gets too hot. It's a symptom of two things. Firstly, despite the refit work, the rolling stock is getting on, and is more prone to failure. Secondly, the trains are completing long journeys. If it's a five-hour journey and the air conditioning fails an hour in, it's realistically going to have to wait until you reach the final destination. Four hours can be a very long time to wait.

                              The East Coast services have (pointless) quiet coaches the same as other operators. I can never really see the point. I find people talking and laughing really loudly just as irritating as a mobile phone ringing but neither is as irritating as the constant barrage of announcements after every station stop, which are as deafening in the quiet carriage as anymore else. I'd prefer to see 'Pissed Jocks and Geordies' coaches, in which they could fight and swear to their own content (because they're not really fit to travel with everyone else.)

                              One of the big selling points for the East Coast line is the unlimited free wireless Internet access available on all the trains. This is unmatched by any of the other big operators. First Great Western doesn't offer anything at all, and the service on Virgin is chargeable unless you are in first class. On East Coast, it's free to all, and it's nice to know that when you're going to be on the train for a long time, you will still be able to get online without paying extra. But let's not get too excited.

                              You have to register your email address to use the service. I suspect that in accepting the terms of service you're authorising them to share your email address with others. Deep joy. The speed of connection is, at times, too poor to be worth the effort. There are parts of the line (notably between Newcastle and Edinburgh) where the signal seems very weak and it's barely worth trying to connect. Even at times when it's working 'well' it's quite slow, and often freezes, which, to fix, means that you have to shut down and restart. The internet service provider is also Swedish, which sets the default language on certain web sites to Swedish, which is vaguely weird. Since the service was instated, the staff members on the train have clearly been bombarded with queries and now insist that you telephone an 0845 number for support issues, which probably won't be included in your free call allowance on your mobile. The train guard *can* reset the service on the train (apparently) but that's all he can/is prepared to do. If the train is very busy, I don't normally bother with the Internet now. It's too slow to bother with. I'd actually rather they charged a reasonable rate and guaranteed a good connection speed. The service on Virgin trains definitely seems better.

                              There are power connections at most of the seats in both standard and first class (a necessity on a long journey with a laptop, let's face it). These are, again, a bit unreliable. I've found that there can quite often be whole carriages where the power supply doesn't work. Again, the train guard *can* reset this, but is rarely in a hurry to do so.

                              The toilets are a problem. On the plus side, it's good that most of them are not contained by those awful revolving doors that most people forget to lock. I understand that they're for wheelchair users (and certainly don't begrudge them) but if I open them once more and find some old lady with her knickers round her ankles, I think I shall probably make myself go blind on purpose. They're also a nightmare if you have 'playful' people who stand outside and press the open button before you can lock the door. But that aside, most of the toilets aren't like this on East Coast services. The trouble is that, more often than not, they pack up. They simply can't cope with the volume of people using them over a five-hour peak journey and I've regularly been on services where every toilet has packed up. I would suggest that on such long journeys, they might need to schedule a slightly longer stop at one of the stations to have the toilets serviced. Even if they're working, they often run out of soap/paper/hot water and/or get filthy and smelly. It's not good.

                              The East Coast catering is easily the best of all the rail operators (although that is a little like saying Fred West was the kindest serial killer of the 1990s). It helps that they have proper kitchens in operation on many of the services, such that if you have a panini it is actually cooked on a hot plate as opposed to in a microwave. The quality and choice of the food in the shop is still very average. There are sandwiches, crisps, chocolate and cakes but nothing too extraordinary. They do have quite a nice cheese and mushroom flatbread but this simply leads me on to the next criticism, which is that they run out of everything about half way into the journey. Given that they charge a fortune, it seems like extremely bad business sense to me to have a train full of waiting customers, only to not have enough stock to keep feeding them - and that's before you take into account all the delays whilst they change staff or do actually have a little restock. Sort it out!

                              I hate the trolley service in standard class, which blocks up the entire carriage and seems to think it's OK to wheel around sandwiches that should be refrigerated, letting them get all warm and sweaty instead. Yuk. The dining car is the main saving grace, which actually serves up reasonably good hot food with proper table setting and is absolute heaven after a long day in the capital to while away with friends or colleagues. The food is actually quite tasty - something like roast chicken, with vegetables and potatoes will be served quite smartly (considering you're on a train). This is the kind of thing that sets this way of travelling out from the competition.

                              There's an 'at seat' service in first class, although only teas, coffees, water and biscuits are free with a first class ticket. They will, at least, go and get you things from the buffet car, but this doesn't compare well with the likes of Virgin, where a hot (albeit processed) meal is included in the ticket price. The only good thing is that you can jump to the front of the queue at the buffet car if you go for a walk, something, which appeals to my feudal sensibilities enormously.

                              I've seen a gradual improvement in service standards since GNER lost the franchise. GNER staff members were legendarily rude and unhelpful but these days, things aren't as bad they once were. (A member of staff once scolded me when she dropped a milk jug and it splashed up my trousers, on the basis that I was in her way). I still don't feel that the staff members who serve food and drinks in first class are particularly conscientious, nor do they acknowledge that you may have spent several hundreds of pounds on a ticket. Arguably, they should treat all customers with respect of course, but the first class issue is extra annoying.

                              They seem quite reluctant to carry bicycles. I saw a couple run into real trouble at Durham when they wanted to bring their bikes onto the train and this seemed a bit daft to me. Some of the train managers are excellent. They obtain information and announce it for onward connections or other services, genuinely helping you to get to your destination as soon as possible. Others are the complete opposite; it's almost as though you are a nuisance. Generally, I think there is a long way to go, although I sympathise with the constant changes of operator, which must have been very unsettling for the personnel.

                              East Coast trains vary enormously in terms of reliability. The trains are always ready fifteen minutes before departure at London, giving you time to settle and/or find a seat if necessary. Indeed, departure times are pretty reliable, whichever end of the country the train departs from. The problems occur in between! This is another problem of running trains for such a long route in that they can inherit delays that just get worse and worse. It doesn't help that the line out of London often suffers with congestion, signal failures and flooding (!), resulting in problems for the East Coast services without failure. These trains have more than their fair share of issues too. I've been on trains where fights have broken out, birds have flown into and broken windows, the driver has been taken ill and countless other excuses never seen on other lines (at least by me). I have never reached London on time. Arrivals into London always seem to be at least fifteen minutes late. The line doesn't, at least, seem to suffer from endless, disruptive engineering works at weekends though.

                              The service are, at least, reasonably frequent. London-Leeds services run half-hourly, as do services to Newcastle and the Scotland services are hourly. You can't assume that all services stop at the same intermediate stations. Places like Grantham, Peterborough and Doncaster are not so rigidly served so you should always check that before you travel.

                              It's not a cheap service at all. A standard anytime return from Edinburgh to King's Cross is now £271. First class is more than £400 - that's a lot of money! There's a lot of inconsistency in the fares too, with no real regard for the distance travelled. So an equivalent anytime return from London to Leeds is £223, almost the same price as the Edinburgh journey but half the distance. The operator would, of course, argue that you can save a fortune by travelling off peak and by pre-booking a ticket, which you can. But for many travellers, it can be extremely difficult to commit to a specific journey and with the rigid 'no refunds or revisions' rules on these advance tickets, they're often not worth the risk.

                              East Coast services remain a very mixed bag. Over the last five or six years I've seen improvements in reliability, staff attitude and catering, but prices remain very high and the rolling stock is getting too old. I much prefer the train for this journey than flying, particularly with the great scenery and the dining car, but I'd prefer to see the longer routes stopping less frequently to trim those journey times down a bit and the ticket prices are still way too high. As for the free wireless Broadband, well that needs a complete rethink. But I do generally quite enjoy my trips up and down the east coast, even if it's just to take in the scenery.

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                              • Doghouse (DVD) / DVD / 48 Readings / 43 Ratings
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                                29.10.2010 17:00
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                                A virus infects the womenfolk of a small British village

                                This is a review of the film only.

                                To help their best mate Vince get over his acrimonious divorce, a group of lads get together for a weekend away in a quiet village. One of the lads, Mikey, assures them that the beer is good and that the place is full of single women and they're soon on their way. What's even better it that Mikey's Nan lives in the village and is away on holiday, so they can crash at her house. When they arrive in the village, it's a little bit quieter than they were expecting but there is at least one pub so they make their way inside to get some much-needed drinks. When Neil goes to the toilet, he hears a noise coming from one of the cubicles and peers under the door to see the unsavoury vision of somebody being violently ill. But that's not the strangest sight that awaits them. Something has happened to the women in the village and before too long, the lads find themselves fighting for their lives against hordes of undead women. If you thought women hated men, wait until you see this lot....

                                Women, you might want to look away now. There's nothing for you to see here. If ever a film were written and made for the boys, then Doghouse is it. The cinema posters told us that it was 'Shaun of the Dead for Nuts readers' and that's probably the best summary of this film you'll find. It's completely politically incorrect. It's tasteless, gruesome and frequently very silly. It's completely anti-women and demonises every female in the story literally and emotionally. It's really not something that anybody with half an iota of intelligence should be watching. The trouble is, however, that it's really, really, riotously funny.

                                We've had a rush of British horror comedies over the last few years, notably with Shaun of the Dead, which riffed the traditional American zombie film and made it with a cast of thoroughly ordinary British people instead. Christopher Smith's Severance tried something a little different by pitching a group of hopeless business people against a group of psychotic Russian murderers. Both did good business at the box office and, unfortunately, inspired countless inferior copies and rip-offs including the truly dreadful Lesbian Vampire Killers and the disappointing Tormented. Doghouse has, at least, something going for it, creatively. Director Jake West has a strong background in horror, having made a number of short documentaries about characters from cult horror films such as Evil Dead and Hellraiser, and West's 2005 black comedy Evil Aliens was a hit with horror audiences. On the downside, of course, the film stars Danny Dyer, and that's nearly always a recipe for success.

                                So what is it about Doghouse that makes it successful?

                                It's very silly but writer Dan Schaffer knows this and decides to use that as the film's strongest asset, rather than something to be covered up. Little of the plot makes any sense and there's no real attempt here to create any kind of coherent situation. Predictably, the military has been up to no good and, true to form, it's all gone horribly wrong but what they were doing and why is almost immaterial here. The film exists simply as retaliation for every man that has ever been nagged by a woman. The film's title comes from the fact that every man on the trip is in the 'doghouse' with his partner for leaving him/her to come away to the countryside instead and the stoic resolution of Vince's friends is commendable. It also means that these lads, crude as they are, are good mates and it's hard not to grow to like them between the swearing, misogyny and bottom burps. They're all very ordinary but they're all united by problems with their better halves and their affection for best friend Vince and, crucially, this means that the audience quite quickly warms to them. For such a politically incorrect story, there's something refreshingly bold about having one of the lads being a gay character too. It's so unusual to see a group of friends where sexuality clearly isn't an issue and it's all done in such a way that the writer is clearly making the 'what's the big deal' point - entirely successfully.

                                Doghouse also works because of the array of female 'zombies' that stalk the village. Rather than opting for the faceless hordes of decaying, walking corpses that we've seen in the likes of Shaun of the Dead, the makers here have opted to create distinct, unpleasant, emaciated versions of every female stereotype going. So the village hairdresser becomes a scissor-wielding psychotic killer in a mini skirt. Then there's the horsey 'posh type' who insists on wielding her riding crop whilst she tries to bite your face off. There's a bride, a vision in white and lace, spoilt only by the fact that she's covered in the blood of the poor man whos face she just ripped off. No age or demographic goes unrepresented here. There's a little old lady with a zimmer frame who may not have the energy to go after you but wouldn't mind taking a bite our of your leg nonetheless. At the other end of the scale, there's the giggly, Britney-esque schoolgirl, whose childish laugh hides her appetite for men's flesh. I think you can see which way this is going.

                                It's all quite competently done too. The zombies are a veritable triumph of make-up and costume design. They're a little over the top, but in fairness, that's kind of the theme for the whole movie. They're really gooey and unpleasant too, with plenty of bloody wounds and oozing pustules popping out of every orifice. Unsurprisingly, they're also driven by a basic instinct to feed, which makes them easy to fool and (reasonably) easy to kill. Schaffer hasn't decided to go down the 28 Days Later route here and make them super fast and agile, so they sort of plod around the town, killing anything they can find in trousers. West's camerawork is largely free from gimmicks, with a reasonably solid, reliable approach to photography that reinforces an obvious 'Britishness' about the whole thing. Doghouse relies on its script and its writing to entertain rather more than special effects and tricks.

                                And it is really funny. It's not all 'inappropriate' humour, either. One of the funniest scenes in the film is when three of the men have to dress up in women's clothes to try and fool the zombies. It's sheer 'Carry On' from start to finish but there is something unendingly funny about macho men in wigs and frocks (or is that just me?) Every gruesome ordeal is a combination of both types of 'yuk', notably when Dyer finds himself trapped by a nymphomaniac, zombie housewife with a penchant for licking the cream off the end of severed human fingers. The dialogue is crude (loads of swearing here) but entirely appropriate. If you're about to be attacked by hordes of undead killers, you'd probably swear too. Schaffer is also keen to try and remind us that all men are stupid too, and that's one of the key things to note here. This isn't an 'anti-female' film in the slightest, because although it's frequently sexist it takes the mickey out of the male characters in exactly the same way. Indeed, the film's climax is born of the masculine bravado (or should that be stupidity) of the male leads and ends things in about the most upbeat way that a movie based on mass slaughter possibly could.

                                Unsurprisingly, it's very gory but it's mostly of the slapstick variety so it's hard to take anything here particularly seriously. It's frequently jumpy though, as the writer and director combines words and sound to make you jump out of your seat at all the right moments. There's also a bit of a point to it too. It's not just a brainless action film. Hidden away, deep beneath the layers of muck, blood and swearing there's the faintest shred of a serious point - though few will dwell on it for longer than a couple of seconds.

                                Like many British films, the cast boasts a strong selection of familiar faces. Doghouse also ranks as one of those rare creatures known as 'a good Danny Dyer film'. Dyer works best when he pretty much plays himself and that means 'stupid and cocky' - two words that amply describe his character, Neil. Neil is one of the most chauvinistic of the crew but he also has some of the best lines here and Dyer just seems effortlessly likeable. That's also mostly true of Noel Clarke, whose character is the one that suggests the trip in the first place. Clarke is probably best known as Rose Tyler's boyfriend Mickey in Doctor Who, and he pretty much plays the same character here.

                                Lee Ingleby is great as the nerd of the bunch, more excited by a stash of collectible toys than the life-threatening situation outside. Liverpudlian Stephen Graham is a little under-used as divorce Vince, until the final act but he gels well with the rest of the group. There's also a brief cameo from ex-Bill actor Billy Murray who probably suffers the grisliest end. Ah, how satisfying...

                                Doghouse is one of those films that feels as though it *should* be an insult to your intelligence, but if it is, you're probably taking yourself too seriously. West's horror comedy makes perfect use of the genre staples to mock both men and women in a manner that might be superficially offensive but is actually completely harmless. There's a strong, realistic chemistry amongst the lads here, such that you really can't help warming to them (even Dyer) and for brainless escapism, they don't really get much better than this.

                                A definite Halloween treat - highly recommended

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                                • The Losers (DVD) / DVD / 48 Readings / 47 Ratings
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                                  22.10.2010 17:09
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                                  A black ops team 'returns from the grave'

                                  This is a review of the film only.

                                  A CIA black ops team is sent to the Bolivian jungle to track down and eliminate a prolific drug dealer. Having found the target, the team sends reports back to base where an air strike is launched. To the men's horror, however, a bus full of school children arrives at the site. When they try and cancel the command, the message is intercepted by their handler, who introduces himself as Max, and prevents the air strike from being cancelled. The team is left to make their way to the location and rescue the children on foot. They succeed, but the helicopter that is sent to airlift them out of the location is intercepted and destroyed. When the men realise that they have been set up, they throw their belongings into the debris and allow the military to assume that they have been killed in the incident.

                                  The team leader, named Clay, is subsequently approached by a mysterious woman in Bolivia who claims that she can get them back onto US soil if they will help her bring Max to justice. It transpires that Max is involved in a plan that could threaten the world. Clay's men must work undercover and try and expose Max and his plan, before it's too late. But how do you do that when everybody thinks you're dead?

                                  The Losers started its life as a comic book series on DC Comics' mature imprint called Vertigo comics. Running for 32 issues between 2003 and 2006, the series was very loosely based on an earlier series that featured a group of World War 2 soldiers but the Vertigo version was re-imagined for a more modern audience. The film is effectively the origin of the team, explaining how they came to fall under the radar and how their relationship with Max becomes rather more deadly and driven.

                                  For director Sylvain White, The Losers is something of a departure from his previous movie, Stomp The Yard. White attempts to retain the comic book feel of the story here, particularly with a choppy use of visuals and dialogue that prevents the audience from ever really taking the picture too seriously. The finished product is an entertaining enough action romp, but one that is ultimately very superficial and quickly forgotten.

                                  It doesn't help that the film was released in the same year as the big screen re-imagining of the TV series The A-Team, largely because the mechanics of the two films work in very similar ways. Both films feature a group of men who have turned more towards the mercenary side of things through circumstance. Each of the members of the two teams has a particular specialisation and capability, with one of those freeze-frame introductions at the start of The Losers to present everybody by name and skill. Neither film takes itself too seriously (almost certainly a good thing) but the end result is that The Losers tends to feel like The A-Team's poor relative. It doesn't have the budget, it doesn't have the big names and it doesn't have the distinctive characterisation that made The A-Team so distinctive.

                                  Indeed, there are very few members of The Losers that stand out in any shape or form. Leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is very non-descript and could arguably be any world-weary American soldier. His men are equally unmemorable, with only the technical specialist Jensen demonstrating any real character traits. This makes it extremely difficult for the audience to care what happens to them one way or another. The script somehow manages to de-humanise them almost entirely. Despite the fact that we learn one of them is a new father and that one has a younger sister, their 'lives' back in the US largely become irrelevant. There comes a point where the audience has to decide simply to put its feet up and stop thinking about what's going on.

                                  On the upside, this is never a film that rests on its laurels. It's almost impossible to get bored of The Losers because there's just too much going on. The narrative lurches and hurtles from one conflict/explosion/fight to another, with just a little bit of intrigue and machination in between to allow everybody to catch their breath. On that basis, the ninety-minute running time hurtles past and the action thriller badge for the film is as accurate as any could be. It's also frequently funny. There's a great scene in a lift where Jensen finds himself half-naked and exposed to a group of secretaries, where he just smiles cockily and asks if they like 'the angle of dangle'. That kind of demonstrates the level of humour here perfectly in a film that doesn't take itself seriously and doesn't expect the audience to either. The bad guy is a bit of a Bond villain but he too has some great movies and is a worthy opponent for Clay and his men. It's a reasonably palatable concoction too. The violence is reasonably bloodless and the dialogue is safe enough to make this appeal to a wide range of ages. Very occasionally, the director shows an inkling of flair that never really seems to take off. There's a great shoot out in a hotel room where a slow motion sequence captures the image of one of the shooters in the reflection of a shard of glass. Had we seen much more of this, The Losers would almost certainly have felt much more original than it does.

                                  On the downside, The Losers is just stuffed full of action movie clichés. There's a slow motion walk out of all the team doing their best to look rock hard. A jeep hurtles out of a rain forest as a massive explosion erupts behind it. None of the bad guys seems capable of firing a single bullet that can hit its target. The top bad guy is ridiculously over the top and does a long line in sharp suits and cruel one-liners. There's double crossing, triple crossing and plenty of those kind of spectacular 'no way' kind of stunts that just make you shake your head in disbelief. The film is also set up very much as an introduction to what seems to be a planned franchise, with a weak, rather open ending that makes the whole thing feel like a pilot for something else. Indeed, many of the production values here feel rather more like a TV movie than a Hollywood blockbuster. Some of the editing in the middle of certain scenes almost feels like it was set up for an advertisement break, for example.

                                  Turning to the ugliness, the special effects are not particularly good. The explosions are so obviously staged and the use of pyrotechnics makes this more like a stage show than a serious movie. Clay (team leader) is woefully unconvincing and the decision to pitch him up with such a youthful, sassy female love interest makes it a bit like seeing your father pitch up with a much younger girlfriend.

                                  There are some strange and not entirely effective casting decisions in The Losers that leave you wondering what the studio had in mind. Presumably riding the crest of success from his appearance in Watchmen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan takes the lead as Clay but seems deeply uncomfortable with the subject matter. He doesn't have the physique or the presence to convince us that he is who he's pretending to be and you wonder whether the fact that he continually looks so bad is actually how he felt. It's a disaster, then, to hook him with Zoe Saldana, who looks more like his daughter than a lover. Saldana made her name as Uhura and looks great here too, but generally seems under-used. Idris Elba and Columbus Short are both very unmemorable as team members Roque and Pooch and it's hard to decide whether they're 'good' or not with such limited material to work with.

                                  Conversely, Chris Evans is, as ever, excellent. As Jensen, he has been slightly 'nerdified' here, but adds a much-needed injection of quirky humour and the aforementioned moment in the lift is simply hilarious. Jason Patric is consistently over-the-top as bad guy Max, but then the script demands it and he seems to be having a ball along the way (but don't ever take a job as his umbrella-carrier.)

                                  The Losers is an awful lot of fun. There are plenty of stunts and explosions here and this is certainly a very undemanding film. The plot doesn't stand up well to scrutiny but that's almost a given in the genre and at ninety minutes, the film never outlives its welcome. Chris Evans is sexy and sassy and there are plenty of laughs along the way. That aside, however, The Losers is very easily forgotten. There simply isn't enough here to set this aside from the competition and one viewing will always be more than enough. It would be unfair to expect too much from The Losers, but it's fun while it lasts.

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