Imogen Heap “Sparks” (Album Review)

Release date: 18th August 2014
Label: Megaphonic Records


Ever-busy, yet far from prolific, by 2014 it had been half a decade since Imogen Heap’s last full album, the Grammy Award-winning Ellipse. Belated follow-up Sparks was in production – and lingering in pre-release hell – for three-and-a-half of those, and finally saw the light last summer, self-issued on her own label.

A concept album comprising 14 individual concepts, each “heapsong” was either commissioned or inspired by a different location or idea, whether that be a trip to Beijing as an artist in residence, a jogging app for mobile phones, a soundscape of a first date or a chair which records fans’ answers to a specific question. Recorded one at a time between 2011-13 (and initially released as singles as she went), it is no wonder that when bolted together these songs lack a cohesive flow.

Incorporating numerous genres as diverse as dreamy indie pop and stark electronica, Sparks‘ only loosely familiar element is the intermittent reoccurrence of Eastern themes, interwoven into three or four tracks when Imogen travelled.

It’s certainly ambitious – Imogen has never shied away from stretching herself – and there is some gold in here (Run Time, Lifeline, Entanglement, You Know Where to Find Me and Propellor Seeds are personal highs), but some of the more experimental tracks do fall shy of enjoyable. Neglected Space (a spoken word ‘poem’ from the perspective of disused buildings) and The Listening Chair (condensing the first 35 years of Imogen’s life into five minutes of hollered memories) grind any momentum to a halt and frustrate in their overlong sluggishness.

Personally, the ordering of the songs doesn’t sit well. For all its harmonious, piano-led sweetness, YKWtFM does not an impactful opener make. The same can be said for choosing the beautiful-but-airy Propeller Seeds as the ‘epic’ finale. Flitting from concept-to-concept makes for a staccato listening experience which I would forgive if the songs were presented in production order, but they aren’t; this order was purposefully chosen.

It pains me not to be bestowing indisputable praise upon an artist I adore; particularly one who is constantly innovating and challenging both herself and the mainstream. Some songs may simply take time to settle in (especially considering the length of time we have been living with some of the singles in isolation), however it is still evident to me that Sparks is not Imogen’s best work.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

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Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness (DVD Review)

15 – 85mins – 2012
Written by: Brian Rudnick
Directed by: Gerry Lively
Starring: Jack Derges, Eleanor Gecks, Lex Daniel, Anthony Howell, Habib Nasir Naber


WIZARDS OF THE BOAST

“The Classic Saga Returns” bellows the self-assured tagline at the head of the DVD cover, yet surely this second DTV sequel to the 2001 role-playing franchise cash-in was neither wanted or expected, much less classic? Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s universally-renowned RPG has earned that distinction, I grant you, but the poorly received Jeremy Irons and Thora Birch-starring flop? Jog on!

Unfounded immodesty aside, for all its low budget flaws (flagrant genre stereotypes, unknown actors with all-too-modern haircuts delivering preposterous dialogue with serious faces) The Book of Vile Darkness is a “level up” on 2005’s soulless and pedestrian Wrath of the Dragon God. The fact that many fans actually prefer that first sequel to the theatrically-released Dungeons & Dragons (2000) speaks volumes.

The “vile” tome of the title doesn’t play a major role (it’s forgotten for all-too-lengthy stretches), with the undemanding plot focusing on a young knight’s (Derges) decision to join a rag-tag party of ne’er-do-wells too nice to be evil but too bastardly to be empathised with, on a mission of vengeance after his unrealistically youthful father is kidnapped by a villainous warlord.

There are a handful of beautiful mythical landscapes (briefly viewed but they do bring visual scope to the small production), some passably sufficient CGI beasties and some mildly unusual and inventive fantasy elements (a roaming eyeball and ghost limbs in particular), although these nods to the fanbase are integrated a little too irrelevantly as if everyone should be a well-traversed grand-master of every facet of the long-running and highly-acclaimed strategy game.

Modest horror studio After Dark Films’ involvement in the film has – as with The Butterfly Effect’s none-too-shabby threequel, Revelations (reviewed on my old blog HERE) – lead to a dramatic increase in blood and boobs which feels alien to the series and gratuitously crammed in, like a lame Game of Thrones knock-off. While the only genuinely spine-chilling aspect (a hungry undead demon child) feels like it belongs in Silent Hill.

Ultimately, this brisk 85minute adventure leaves you feeling somewhat unsated, the credits rolling too soon after the climatic show-down. An epilogue would have improved the film’s pace and narrative structure, helping to contextualise the action in the grand D&D universe (merely hinted at in a stylishly illustrated prologue) rather than dumping you out of the diegesis while the actor’s are still catching their breath.

In a CR@B Shell: A noble and sporadically successful endeavour from the cast and crew, The Book of Vile Darkness accomplishes a lot with little resources but this scrappy little underdog can’t escape the hackneyed genre stereotypes its iconic source material is so deeply rooted in.
2 stars

The Inbetweeners 2 (Blu-ray Review)


15 – 96mins – 2014


EPIC BANTS

When I walked out of the cinema last August, parroting choice lines and giggling like an over-excited bumder, I was certain that the second big screen outing for bezzie mates Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas), Neil (Blake Harrison) and Jay (James Buckley) was a briefcase-sized success: funny, crude, cathartic and heartfelt in perfect quantities.

Yes, I just said “titties”.

But with a bit of distance between me and Channel 4’s lovable geeks, I returned to the Oz-trotting sequel last week, and… was somewhat underwhelmed. It’s not a baaaad film, and I did chuckle along once again at the most infectious zingers, but what struck me most second time around was how thoroughly uninspired it felt, emanating a strong whiff of concept-repeating, franchise-lengthening, straw-clutching.

The sitcom rule of thumb is “don’t mess with the status quo”, but for a big-screen spin-off there needs to be some invention and expansion from the half hour format. This is why so many head abroad. So what do we get in The Inbetweeners 2? Another foreign holiday! Yes, there’s a Harry Potter-spoofing title sequence and Jay’s hyperbolic email from the other side of the world is acted out with outrageous verve, but once the UK is left behind you realise all the fish-out-of-water schtick was already covered (and liberally smothered in smut) in 2011’s first …Movie (reviewed HERE on my old blog).

The social misfits returned from their first holiday sans-parents happy, content, confident – and with actual real-live girlfriends. That was their silver screen send-off. But money talks, and one year down the line (for our characters) all the good work has been undone and they have reverted back to form; no-one has grown up and everyone is worryingly miserable.

The horrors of work, further education and psycho-girlfriends! Worst of all, put-upon Will is still being picked on. Only now by supposedly more mature and worldly students at Uni – a place where all types of people are meant to converge and feel welcome amongst peers – in a far crueller and less forgivable way than he ever was at Rudge Park Comprehensive. I genuinely felt for him.

The only character afforded any growth is Simon’s girlfriend, Lucy (Tamla Kari), and not for the better. Genuine and reserved in …Movie, she has morphed into an out-and-out hoodie-cutting nutjob, simply to give Simon a reason to feel the same despair felt by bullied Will and directionless Jay. Lucy has been given such a radical – hideous – personality transplant she may as well be a different character.

I may be over-stating my niggles. It’s not all cruelty, awkwardness and doom-and-gloom – this is a comedy, after all! The dialogue is still quick, witty and genuine. Furthermore, Neil’s dolphin training debacle and waterpark “accident” is a vomit-inducing standout. Will also gets a moment to, erm, shine when he “dazzles” potential love interest Katie (Emily Berrington) with a wince-inducing campfire recital. Sadly, it feels like a laboured attempt to replicate the guffaws of the first film’s robot dance sequence – and falls short in comparison.

Nothing is terrible here, but it has been done better before. I’m back on my niggles again, then, and repetition is The Inbetweeners 2’s biggest downfall. As touching as the camaraderie and epiphanies during the dehydrated Outback climax is, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a forced attempt at a second happily ever after – and one that had already been executed more authentically in the first film. I like these characters a great deal and don’t want to see them treading water – even if it is in somewhere as exotic as Byron Bay!!

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Song of the Sea (DVD Review)


PG – 93mins – 2014


THE OTHER CROWD

Every bit as heartfelt and evocative as his striking debut, The Secret of Kells (2009), director Tomm Moore returns with another spellbinding animated feature richly steeped in Irish folklore and legend.

Young Ben (David Rawle) blames his mute little sister, Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell), for the disappearance of their mother six years ago, following Saoirse’s birth. But when Saoirse discovers a mysterious coat which pulls her into the sea to swim with the seals, their Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) demands the children leave their island home and live with her in the city. But separated from the coat, Saoirse becomes sick, and it is up to the siblings to band together and journey across Ireland to return home and reunite Saoirse with her white seal-skin coat and find her voice.

Like her mother, Saoirse is a Selkie; a seal-child. The last of her kind, in fact, and her enchanting song of the sea can release all magical brethren from their earthly binds and return them to their spiritual home. It is hard to call this supernatural revelation a twist because it is revealed so early on (and mentioned on the back of the DVD), but Song of the Sea doesn’t need to trick us to treat us, and the effortless story is still brimming with surprises as the children’s quest leads to encounters with will o’ the wisps, lyrical faeries, over-protective witches, armies of owls and heartbroken giants – many of which cleverly parallel Ben and Saoirse’s situation.

Like the story, the animation is deceptively simple. The blocky, two-dimensional style is actually stunning beautiful, with shadows, texture and depth bringing life to the line drawings. The landscapes are almost painterly in their depiction, with brushstrokes still evident and the use of patterns evoking a tapestry-like quality.

The choice of colours is also rich and evocative, with drab normality doused in lifeless grey, while the sea is painted in sparkling aquatic blues and greens. The cosy comfort of home is warm with deep oranges and many of the fantastical elements are highlighted with a dazzling, otherworldly white.

The visuals are complemented by a soft, almost mournful score by Bruno Coulais and Kila which makes heavy use of folk strings to create a sweet, poetic lullaby with a Gaelic lilt. When this can’t be heard, wind, waves and the far-off caw of a seagull are almost ever-present aids to the ambience.

There were scenes with strong comparisons to genre giants Studio Ghibli, which is a huge compliment to Moore’s fledging production company Cartoon Saloon. Macha the Owl Witch greatly reminded me of a gestalt approximation of the Witch of the Waste and the 90year-old Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), while sheepdog Cu’s twilight flight back to the lighthouse with Ben and Saoirse on his back had echoes of the iconic cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro (1989).

In a CR@B Shell: Whimsical and wondrous, director Tomm has once Moore delivered a bold, touching, inventive and attractive animation imbued with family values and a strong moral underpinning. I heartily recommend you take a dip into this enchanting Sea.
5 stars

The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect (Book Reviews)

Written by Graeme Simsion, 2013 and 2014
Published in the UK by Penguin Books
 
Engrossing, enthralling, endearing and easy to read – The Rosie Project is an astonishing debut novel from former data-modeller-turned-author Graeme Simsion.

Australian genetics professor Don Tillman is intelligent, polite and super-organised – but he struggles to talk to women, much less date them. So his womanising best friend suggests they devise a questionnaire to assess the suitability of potential love matches for Don. Will tattooed bartender Rosie fit the professor’s picky profile, or does she fail to meet his strict criteria?

Don Tillman is a wonderfully rounded creation; smart, funny and moralistic, despite his many frustrating behavioural quirks and efficiency-obsessed eccentricities. It has been suggested that he is on the Autism spectrum, perhaps having Asperger’s, but this is never outright confirmed. Regardless, it was a joy to watch Rosie open Don up to new and rebellious experiences, whilst also learning so much from a man who at first seemed so impossibly different from her.

I was charmed by this unconventional romance and couldn’t resist smiling along as Don and Rosie’s relationship became more balanced and symbiotic; he helps her just as much as she helps him. I devoured the novel in a couple of days and eagerly anticipated the follow-up, The Rosie Effect, released September 2014.

Sadly, I was let down. Effect successfully recaptured the breezy atmosphere of the original, but the plot hinged upon character decisions which felt very inauthentic and forced. I can imagine Simsion’s Australian publishers begging him for “more of the same magic” and to a degree he duly delivers, except Rosie comes out of these sophomore proceedings a shadow of her former self; challenging, cruel, almost unlikeable. I could happily have gone without reading about the Effect of married life on Don and Rosie’s happily ever after.

A film adaptation of the first book is due next year, however recent news that it has lost its leading lady (Jennifer The Hunger Games Lawrence) and director (Richard Linklater) has me concerned that the Project is doomed if financers Sony Pictures cannot organise proceedings in a more effective and organised manner more befitting Professor Don Tillman.

The Rosie Project CR@B Verdict: 5 stars
The Rosie Effect CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm (Book Review)

Written by Greg Keyes, 2014
Published in the UK by: Titan Books

Released in the promotional campaign leading up to last summer’s cinematic bow of the sci-fi/action sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Firestorm is far better than a movie tie-in novel has any right to be.

Bridging the decade-long gap between Rupert Wyatt’s superb reboot Rise… (2011) and Matt Reeves’ theatrical follow-up – a period in which human civilization crumbles as the Ape community continues to grow in number, strength and intelligence – Greg Keyes has crafted a gripping and emotional read.

The story – written from both sides of the conflict – feels fresh, exciting and unpredictable, and the characters, thanks in particular to their often troubled backstories, make for complex and three dimensional beasts. I found myself far more sympathetic to Dawn’s most contemptable antagonist having glimpsed what he had been through. Nods to both recent films and the classic original series helps Keyes solidify the in-universe continuity and induce knowing smiles.

It’s just a pity that lazy proof-reading from publishers Titan Books has led to a number of glaringly obvious and easily-corrected typos throughout the 300page novel. Such unprofessionalism sadly pulls you out of the action, even when the narrative is so strong, reducing a five star novel into, at my generous best, a four star product.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Cinema Review)

MANDATORY VIEWING

On a bitterly cold November Saturday afternoon I squeezed myself into one of only three remaining seats in the biggest screen of my nearest multiplex to watch another Young Adult literary adaptation come to a close with a financially-motived two-part finale.

Sandwiched in the winter release schedule between two all-conquering, long-running franchise juggernauts (Bond in October and Star Wars in December), it is easy to forget how eagerly-anticipated Mockingjay – Part 2 was before Spectre and The Force Awakens stole all the column inches.

But being an underdog never stopped Katniss Everdeen (J-Law) before, and it seems audiences have stuck around to see her war against a brutal, dystopian system come to a head. Or should that be “point”?

With fellow victor of the 74th Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), brainwashed against her cause, Katniss defies the wishes of District 13 leader Alma Coin (Moore; never severe enough) and leads a group of gun-toting revolutionaries – including best-friend-and-potential-lover Gale (Hemsworth), camera director Cressida (Dormer) and a volatile Peeta (for propaganda’s sake) – into Panem’s Capitol to capture the barbaric President Snow (Sutherland) and end his reign of terror.

Opening with a surprisingly low-key but satisfyingly metaphoric scene of a voiceless Katniss croaking through the pain of a strangling at Peeta’s Capitol-controlled hand, returning director Francis Lawrence perfectly bridges the short gap between Parts 1 and 2 without need for flashbacks or recaps, before things kick in to overdrive.

Under attack, Katniss’s “Star Squad” descends underground to avoid a multitude of Snow’s covertly-placed “pods”. These booby traps are the most overt attempt to shamelessly replicate the game template of the first novel (already lazily rehashed in #2, Catching Fire), but thankfully Finnick Odair (Claflin) acknowledges this similarity with an ironic quip before things move on.

The action is explosive, entertaining, varied, often scary and relentless, which is impressive given how screenplay writers Craig and Strong have expanded half a story into a 137min epic. The running time whizzes along despite the presence of political factors which threaten to grind the story to a halt. Unfortunately, the pace does slows to a crawl in the third act, before a low-key coda closes this grandiose spectacle with a personal-but-underwhelming whimper which never attempts to depict how Katniss’s actions have affected Panem’s future.

Crucially, however, this is not enough to detract too heavily from this fourth instalment’s strengths, and I was pleased with many of the stylistic choices. Thankfully the ever-expanding cast means that the uncomfortably bizarre feline-featured Tigris (Bondurant) is reduced to two fleeting scenes in what is a sombre and darkly-toned film which all but grey-scales the colourful palette which swamped the earlier films in gaudy excess.

While The Hunger Games is too bleak and dour to ever be my favourite literary or cinematic saga (the ridiculous spellings also add a level of disconnect which does not sit well with me), Mockingjay – Part 2 is confident and spectacular enough to do justice to Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy and keep the franchise ever in the fans’ favour.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars