Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Robot Chicken Season 2 DVD: Review

For anyone that's owned an original Optimus Prime toy or grew up with Saturday morning television in the 80s, Robot Chicken's host of characters will bring forth waves of nostalgia- and perhaps there is something innately amusing about seeing your favourite childhood toys swear and fight their way through sketch after sketch- perhaps. Now being broadcast in it's 4th series on American comedy network Adult Swim, UK fans are treated to the uncensored version of Robot Chicken's second series complete with a Christmas special, deleted scenes and customary audio commentaries. Still a relatively unknown show in the UK, it has garnered a cult following through it's forays into Star Wars parody and by virtue of the long list of celebrities (including Scarlett Johansson, Bruce Campbell, David Hasselhoff and George Lucas) who claim admiration and willingly participate in it's satirical reimaginings.

To the uninitiated, Robot Chicken represents the creation of Seth Green (Austin Powers, Family Guy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Matthew Seinreich (editor of ToyFare, a monthly 'action figure' mag for collectors). 'Chicken' folklore tells it that the two met and 'bonded' over their mutual love of action figures, and therein a successful comedy format was born. Utilising an entire toy-cupboard full of action-figures and lovingly animated with old-school stop-motion, quick unfussy sketches are the modus here- the 20 shows on the DVDs here last a succinct 11 minutes each. The show pertains not to break new comedic ground or to offer anything resembling a deconstruction- it's merely a cipher for a generation drip-fed on pop culture. The humour on offer here is immediate, and Robot Chicken derives it's laughs from a cocktail of satire, slapstick and simple juxtaposition- with varying levels of success. The most relied-upon format here is also the least imaginative- take one well known figure from popular culture, for example Lindsay Lohan, and immerse them in a well-known scenario from another similarly well-known source, ie/ Highlander. The sketch writes itself as Lohan dumbs her way through the film's fantasy scenarios. The humour is obvious. Other sketches are more imaginative, but in a minority- a faux 1930s cinema-flick 'The Five Stages of Acceptance' (starring a giraffe stuck in quicksand) is genuinely clever, and offers a kind of slapstick comedy that could have been employed more widely across the series. Some of the gags fall completely flat, as the 'Fuck Rodgers' parody in which aliens mistake Buck's name, exemplifies. Moments like these are too frequent across the series, far too simplistic, and just not funny enough.

One gets the feeling that Robot Chicken's humour and success have, in some way, been predetermined. There is a whiff of 'insider-ism' to the whole project, as celebrities line up demanding voiceovers on the show. Having it send you up is perceived to be a kind of Hollywood badge of honour. Essentially a show by and for pop-culture geeks, Robot Chicken won't appeal to everyone- and even those who are attracted toward it's indulgent postmodern humour may find themselves wanting it to be 'better', something that will not discourage the makers, who set out it's mandate in the opening sequence: A chicken brought back from the dead by a mad scientist, is forced to watch a multiplex of TV screens, eyes held open, until insanity creeps in. It's a fitting metaphor for pop culture generally, and enforces the notion that noone involved with this show is taking it too seriously.

Robot Chicken Season 2 is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 28th via Revolver Entertainment

Review first published in Sound Screen

10 reasons why you should invest in Battlestar Galactica

First published on Virgin Media

It's sexy
Ok, so Starbuck is a girl (the 1970s version was played by the iconic Dirk Benedict) but she's still a bar-brawling, highly sexed, card-playing fighter pilot. The sexual tension between her and Admiral's son Lee 'Apollo' Adama results in some steamy scenes.

More plot twists than Lost and 24
Our home planet has been obliterated by nasty alien robots. But who is controlling them and where did they come from? Why are they attacking us? Do we even deserve to survive? BSG drops you in at the deep end and will keep you gripped the whole way through.

New = better
Although its based on the original series, the new BSG ditches the painted sets, body suits and toy spaceships in favour of mind blowing CGI. But don't worry if you were a fan of the original – you'll find the plenty of old-school references to keep you happy.

It's sci-fi Jim, but not as we know it
Forget the disappointment of the Star Wars prequels or the never-ending tedium of Star Trek, BSG will remind you why you fell in love with spaceship battles and laser-fights in the first place. Embrace that inner kid.

It'll make you fear your phone
Enjoying your new iPhone? Reading this on a laptop? Perhaps you have a thermostat. Could these things one day contribute to our extinction? You'll never look at the technology around you in the same way again...

Soap-opera emotion
BSG deals with the big issues in much the same way EastEnders does... so you can look forward to plenty of heartbreak, terminal illnesses, alcoholism, attempted murder and assisted suicide!

It's critically acclaimed
Critics have called it 'the most potent series on television'. Impressively, over the last five years it has picked up numerous awards, including four Emmys.

Religion never seemed so cool
Battlestar has more religious references than a Dan Brown novel, but the angels, prophecies and holy books are as gripping as any space dogfight.

It's brave
Tackling controversial issues like prisoner abuse and suicide bombings head on, BSG doesn't shy away from the ugliness of modern life. From elections to insurgencies, the parallels are clear but never preachy.

It will take over your life
With four seasons, a mini series, a feature-length TV movie and a prequel series planned for next year - you might find yourself having less of a social life once you've got your teeth into BSG. Not that that's a bad thing, but don't say we didn’t warn you...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Foreign Beggars - United Colours of Beggattron: Review

Ignore if you will the slightly cheesy album title and badly-drawn cover art, there's much more to this album than the tongue-in-cheek concept they suggest. Since 'The Foreign Beggars' debuted in 2003, this crew have been busy- building a collective, collaborating with Bjork and Gorillaz, presenting a regular slot on the BBC Asian network and gigging relentlessly. Point is, they might have been too rushed in that rap game to spend much time on the cover art. Spin 'United Colours of Beggattron', the Beggars' 4th album proper, and it practically sizzles from out your speakers. Eschewing old school 'sample-based' hip-hop in favour of beat programming, glitch and cosmic synths, the production here has more in common with the avant stylings of New York's Anti-Pop Consortium than the more mainstream pop of East London's Dizzee Rascal. Regardless, all the rap here is infused with that irresistable London swagger. For the most part, lyrics are insightful and imaginative- a tight cocktail of bravado, wordplay and storytelling. The MCs and guests here compliment each other well, both in terms of tonality and persona. There's a broad array of music on offer here too, from the soulful 'Move Higher' to the club-ready of 'Keeping the line fat', a track boasting a fantastic synth line straight of a Boards of Canada record. We get taken on a tour of the scene- from dancehall to grime, funk to electro. It's very nearly a start-to-finish LP, but for a few trying moments. The faux-hospital radio skit is insufferable: it's protagonist's Indian accent a cringeworthingly poor decision. Elsewhere the odd line falls flat, the occasional rhyme doesn't quite- but I'm splitting hairs. The masterful 'Seven Figure Swagger' is the sound of a crew at the top of it's game, making beats and rhyme for fun. There's no harm in aiming high, but nobody gets there without working for it. A decree that seems to have rubbed off on The Foreign Beggars.

First published in Notion Magazine, London, October 2009

Thursday, 3 September 2009

District 9: Review

The much anticipated debut feature from Neill Blomkamp, District 9, goes some distance to justifying the quiet hype it has generated. A sci-fi flick that promises to endear itself beyond the genre's partisan crowd, the buzz around it has been cleverly built up through virals, 'human only' signage in city centres and notably, a Peter Jackson endorsement. The movie itself is frequently entertaining and interesting - but is more conventional than it pretends and not as clever as it should be.

District 9 opens with faux-archive footage of an Alien mothership landing over Johannesburg. Rather than nefarious invaders, it's full of refugees who are doled out squalid shanty-town existences and segregated by the South African government- the allusions to apartheid are immediately obvious, but never overstated. There's xenophobic hostility but the aliens- referred to as 'prawns' are generally regarded with pity, despite hints of an formerly advanced civilisation. It's an interesting reversal of the standard UFO axiom- here, aliens have more to fear from us than vice versa. Historical particulars are glossed over- the plot is evoked initially through eye-witness interviews and scatterbrain archive footage- colluding to build a sense of place, rather than of story. As such, District 9's opening 10 minutes are utterly compelling, it's alternate present day rich and involving.

The film eventually focuses on anti-hero Wikus van der Merwe, an awkward security official charged with evicting the residents of District 9 and moving them to concentration camp District 10. Wikus' nervousness contributes to an encounter with an alien liquid, and he undergoes a genetic transformation in scenes reminiscent of The Fly. His own government turns on him, carrying out specious military experiments. Evading his captors with a running commentary of humourous expletives, an unlikely alliance is formed with an alien freedom fighter. This pairing up is conveyed well, but as this story emerges the more interesting narrative structures fall by the wayside in lieu of standard 'action-blockbuster' storytelling. Indeed, with only a single narrative arc, the second half of the film felt very much like a computer game. Go to a location, shoot things, acheive mission targets, next level. Tiring gunfights replace plot dynamic, and the many shots of soldiers blown apart with 'cool' alien weaponry quickly lose their novelty.

District 9 succeeds in establishing a fascinating hyper-reality- which is then compromised by it's linear story. Blomkamp's earlier short film 'Alive in Joberg' (upon which this is based) maintained a tense ambiguity, but District 9 becomes disappointingly conventional and confused about what it's trying to be. Visually, it's a treat- CG is used intelligently, well shot if not entirely 'cinematic' and edited with tightness. Anyone feeling alienated by the genre (groan) won't be convinced, but District 9 is an interesting if not profound addition to the sci-fi canon, full of charm, intrigue and promise.

First published in Planet Notion