Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off The Wall (CD/Blu-ray Review)


12 – 93mins – 2016


WHEN THE WORLD IS ON YOUR SHOULDER…

Back in 2012, The Estate of Michael Jackson went all-out with a mega-impressive, multi-platform cornucopia of releases to celebrate the silver anniversary of 1987’s Bad album. Mouth-watering for diehard fans (amongst which I count myself), the mix of CD, DVD, regular, deluxe, super-deluxe and standalone formats confounded and overwhelmed casual music listeners, and the project did not hit the sales target Sony Music were hoping for.

The outcome of this was that acclaimed director Spike Lee’s anticipated feature-length Bad 25 documentary was somewhat overshadowed by album, concert and bonus disc releases, to such a degree that when it finally saw a home video release the following year, it was quietly snuck out as a web-store exclusive which, to this day, is rarely in stock.

For these reasons, The Estate have taken a more stripped back approach in releasing Lee’s follow-up passion piece on the King of Pop’s seminal debut solo LP, Off The Wall. So, gone are the confusing multi-disc bundles chock-full of club-friendly remixes, demos and rarities, gone are the live album and concert tour DVDs, and gone are the fan-servicing super-deluxe packages replete with programmes, t-shirts and posters. In their place we get the new documentary (on your choice of either DVD or Blu-ray format) together with the original 1979 album, as the artist originally released it – oh, and a piece of chalk, to graffiti the gatefold ‘wall’ in any cover-inspired way you see fit!The loyal fanbase will bemoan the omission of additional content (after all, who doesn’t already own multiple copies of Off The Wall?), but there’s something to be said – in this digital age of self-compiled playlists and shuffle buttons – for presenting Michael’s definitive, untouched vision for a new generation to appreciate. Meanwhile, older generations have the opportunity to rediscover this culturally significant album which is often unfairly overshadowed by the monster industry-shaping landmarks which followed.

I will shamefully confess that prior to this sets’ release last Friday, it had been a good few years since I last played the album front-to-back, but what instantly hit me as I soaked it in anew, was the energy and youthful exuberance which shines through, not only on the disco-infused hit singles everyone knows (Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, Working Day And Night), but even on the lesser-known album tracks – including saccharine-sweet McCartney-penned ditty Girlfriend, which is generally dismissed as an easy skip!

So, what of Lee’s mouthful-monikered film? The Do The Right Thing director sticks to a very similar style and structure as on Bad 25, editing knockout performance footage and archival interviews with the man himself alongside present day talking heads of friends, family, musical collaborators and famous fans to best tell the incredible story of Michael’s phenomenal journey from cherubic lead signer in a Motown pop band to artistic juggernaut and biggest star on the planet. Like before, the second half delves deeper into the creation process with a track-by-track examination of the 1979 LP.

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off The Wall is a fascinating and inspiring film packed with production tidbits and behind the scenes anecdotes which is clearly crafted with L.O.V.E.. It benefits from a trimmer runtime than its ungainly predecessor (Estate executive John Branca allegedly requested a tighter edit) and fewer pointless testimonials from five minute wonders who never met the man. Sure, John Legend, Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams and The Weekend do all feature, but their contribution is more insightful and heartfelt than Justin Bieber’s gushing over Bad.

What most touched me as the feature drew to a close was how – even after 25 years of fervent fandom – Spike Lee still managed to open my eyes to the spellbinding talent, humility and drive which made Michael Joseph Jackson a real one off; truly irreplaceable. I will happily admit to welling up on multiple occasions as it hit home – not for the first or last time – how much this special man has inspired, brightened and impacted my life. His work will continue to entertain and amaze and, thanks to documentaries such as this one, his legacy will continue to burn bright for generations to come.

Chalk this one up as a success!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

SHOWSTOPPER! The Improvised Musical (Live Review)


Cambridge Arts Theatre – 27th February 2016 – 7.45pm
www.showstoppers.org


FROM SCRATCH TO STAGE

“Not too near the front,” I requested to the box office saleswoman only half-jokingly as she asked how close to the stage we minded sitting as I booked tickets to a show which promised audience participation in crafting an entire musical extravagance at the outset of every performance.

I was certainly curious to see how successful such a bold – and, let’s face it – potentially disastrous enterprise could be, but I was less interested in being a part of the production! The saleswoman belayed my nerves by assuring me that while the audience would be asked for suggestions, they would NOT be dragged up on stage! Relieved, I agreed to an end seat on Row E, and just prayed that the cast would at no time wander the aisles mid-show.

To my relief as we tentatively put bums to seats last night for The Showstoppers’ final performance in Cambridge, they did not. With the house lights still on, the show got underway with MC/compère Pippa Evans asking the audience to proffer suggestions of theme, plot, musical styles and punny title for a new musical she was hoping to pitch to influential West End producer extraordinaire “Cameron Mackintosh” by the end of her “phone call”!

My enthusiasm took a bit of a hit as some very middle class suggestions were put forward (politics, on a Saturday night?!), with “Behind the Scenes with Donald Trump” (eurgh!) eventually garnering the loudest applause over wedding and Le Mans-based suggestions.

Fortunately – and to my great relief – even a passing knowledge (and minimal interest) in America’s bad-haired clown du jour was enough to enjoy this thoroughly astonishing, hilarious and altogether unique theatrical experience.

Once the musical’s title – “Nellie the Elephant Lost Her Trump” – and a vast range of musical styles – ranging from The Lion King and Little Shop of Horrors to Gilbert & Sullivan – were written on a white board to stage right, the lights went down and I could sit a little more comfortably…

“For those who have not seen us before: everything we say, sing and do is entirely improvised. There are no plans and nothing to fall back on!”

With Pippa sat at a desk next to the white board throughout and only occasionally interrupting to shout instructive cues or gauge audience acceptance of a plot development, the rest of the performance was left in the sharp and spontaneously-capable hands of the brilliantly inventive improv. actors and musicians, who somehow managed to generate a polished, funny and engaging production on the spot, with no sense of uncertainty or nerves ever apparent as they sang, danced and imitated their way through Donald Trump’s farcical campaign trail – and relationship with his speech writer, Nellie – in his bid to become POTUS.

Sure, there was the occasional missed cue, escaped chuckle or fluffed line, but this all added to the personable appeal of a truly talented and capable troupe who were literally at the mercy of the audience from the off. What if they hated the chosen theme or characters, I wondered? But there was no sense of displeasure or sapped energy as they gamely rattled through the ninety minute live-brainstorm with gleeful abandon, crafting catchy lyrics and toe-tapping routines while the keyboard plays them in!

Thoroughly TRUMPing my expectations, I cannot sing The Showstoppers praises highly enough – and the fact that no two shows will ever be the same, lends this spectacular creative curio literally limitless re-watch value. I would happily pay to see them perform time and again – political theme or not!

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars

The Green Inferno – The Director’s Cut (Blu-ray Review)


18 – 100mins – 2013


CANNIBAL ZEROX

Lost in the wilderness for a couple of years owing to “financial difficulties” with production company Worldview Entertainment, Eli Roth’s gloriously gratuitous homage to 70s/80s Italian savage slasher flicks (the title is cribbed from the film-within-a-film in Cannibal Holocaust) is finally released into civilised society in the form of a home video release.

Attempting to ground the relentless barbarism in socio-political relevance, the introductory 35minutes is a thoroughly uncaptivating ordeal as a group of New York University student activists induct freshman Justine (Knock Knock‘s Lorenza Izzo) and rally her to join their cause on a non-violent protest in the Peruvian Amazon to protect the indigenous tribe whose homeland is being destroyed by corporate bulldozers.

The lush beauty of the exotic South American rainforest looks jawdroppingly crisp in HD, but the scenery is not enough to distract from the often appalling acting on display. Was this a purposeful nod to the often-derisible performances in other such genre ‘classics’, or was Roth simply aiming for a more naturalistic experience, to the detriment of polished delivery?

However, following the crash landing of the group’s aircraft and their subsequent imprisonment by the very tribe they were there to protect (oh, the cruel irony!), dialogue delivery is of next-to-no import, as ninety percent of the script is comprised of hollers, screams and wimpers.

Viewers with a bloodlust will relish Roth’s gleeful abandon in portraying some sickeningly sadistic torture sequences (eyes, limbs, genitals – nothing is safe from these flesh-craving natives!), and while the murderous methods are creatively varied (impaling! Gouging! Death by fire ant infestation!), you do soon start hitting your tolerance for blood-soaked brutality, and hoping for more substance. Alas, The Green Inferno does not cater to such highbrow tastes.

As the dwindling student’s thoughts turn to escape, Justine’s moral compass takes a shocking dive due south as she callously condemns group leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy) to certain death. Sure, he was a crude and contemptible arsehole, but as the heroine of the piece, I expected more compassion for human life from her; while the mid-credit sting this twist leads to is laughable in its contrived absurdity.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Crimson Peak (DVD Review)

15 – 119mins – 2015


TRIP THE LIGHT PHANTASTC

Having taken a scenic detour to the Pacific Rim via Middle Earth, acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) returns home to the horror genre with this sumptuously beautiful love letter to gothic masterpieces. The back cover of last week’s region 2 DVD release boldly boasts that legendary scribe Stephen King bestowed the film with the impressive twofold accolade of “Gorgeous and terrifying”.

Well, Mr. King is half right. For Crimson Peak is intricately crafted and adorned with dazzling precision, a true archetype for set designers and light technicians in the industry to aspire towards. The screen is never anything less than a feast of towering bygone architecture, swirling snowstorms, portentous phantoms, maelstroms of moths and precisely-orchestrated plays of light and shadow.

But for all its jaw-dropping visual shimmer, the story is a slow and unsatisfying slog, with the stuffy aristocratic air and over-choreographed atmosphere zapping any tension or chills. Budding ghost story author Edith Cushing (Alice In Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) narrates the deepening mystery surrounding the dilapidated Allerdale Hall and its inheritors, but by signposting any paranormal activity you are no longer shocked by their arrival, no matter how ghastly their appearance or unnatural their gait.

As more is revealed of the true intentions of clay-mining baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and his brusque sister Lucille (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain), the apparitions increase, but become ever-more redundant to the resolution of the plot as an influx of stabbings dominate. For such an otherwise tame horror, del Toro does shock with a profuse amount of blood (well, the colour is in the title), with one early scene in particular sickeningly brutal and unnecessary.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Bad Bromance (DVD Review)


15 – 101mins – 2015


‘D’ FOR DISASTER

Straight-to-DVD titles hold a certain mystique for me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for baaaad films, but part of me holds out dim hope that I will fall in love with the underdog and find a much-maligned gem to advocate to the uninformed.

Sadly for its surprisingly high profile stars Jack Black and James Marsden (both of whom should have known better), Bad Bromance is no gem. In fact, the studio were so desperate to bury this horrendously poor taste high school reunion “comedy” that they changed its name! Originally released in the US as The D Train (a name which still lingers in the end credits – testament to the lack of effort employed for this quiet release), promoters clearly thought Twitter buzz-words and Lady Gaga references would help shift a few more discs.

I certainly fell for it – but thankfully only as a free rental, as I would never want to watch this depressingly sordid mess again, whatever name they decide to slap on the cover!

Speaking of the cover, don’t let the zany box-art fool you, this is no typical Jack Black comedy. In fact, things start on a gentle note, with Black’s high school nerd, Dan ‘The D Train’ Landsman, still an invisible and down-trodden shell of a man 20 years later. There are shades of Napoleon Dynamite about his ignorant, try-hard approach – albeit without the quirky humour and likeability – but as an adult it is just pathetic.

In a desperate attempt to gain popularity amongst his bullish peers on the high school reunion committee, Dan jets off to LA on the pretence of a work meeting to convince high school hunk turned commercial actor Oliver Lawless (Marsden) to be guest of honour at the event. While Lawless does (eventually) agree to attend, it is the shockingly hedonistic events of their first evening together that shape – and sully – the rest of the film.

So – spoiler alert – during a drink ‘n’ drugs fuelled night on the town, bisexual Oliver has sex with straight, married Dan. You heard that right. In a comedy. Are we expected to laugh at homosexuality?! Poor taste doesn’t even begin to cover it and I was seriously expecting a third act twist that it only took place in Dan’s drunken dreams… but no.

Worryingly, there is no allusion to how rapey this sordid act of broken trust and infidelity is, given how tee-total Dan was vulnerable and without inhibitions. Instead, the “lucky” recipient develops an unhealthy obsession with wannabe star Oliver which shatters Dan’s whole world.

Is anyone still laughing?!

To make matters worse, this depressingly dark drama stumbles further downhill by having Dan’s boss (Jeffrey Arrested Development Tambor) openly highlight Dan’s inept logic in fabricating a business trip which all but destroys their company! He proceeds to point out how the whole situation – and thus, set-up of the film – could easily have been averted, as if the screenwriters realised they had written themselves into a corner, but rather than correct it they mentioned it so to make it appear intentionally farcical and less contrived! Major fail.

As Oliver flies in for the reunion and shares an awkward few nights in Dan’s spare room (giving wholly inappropriate sex ed. to Dan’s 14 year old son along the way *cringe*), characterisation begins to crumble as people act entirely out of character and the so-called Bad Bromance reaches a tense and uncomfortable crescendo in front of their reunited classmates. The final exchanges attempt heartfelt life-lessons and a sense of closure, but it’s too little too late for this shamefully vile D-Train wreck which – dare I say it – ends on a real bum note.

Now that is comedy!

CR@B Verdict: 1 star

How To Be Single (Cinema Review)


15 – 110mins – 2016


ID4 – INDEPENDENCE DATE

Adapted from the 2008 debut novel by Sex and the City screenwriter Liz Tuccillo, this femme-focused guidebook on how to survive the harsh and often loveless perils of the modern dating game is in a similar vein to star-heavy relationship comedy She’s Just Not That Into You (2009).

Although sunny in nature and released in time for Valentine’s Day, this isn’t a cutesy rom-com for the hearts ‘n’ flowers brigade, or for the uber-sensitive recently heartbroken. No, How To Be Single subverts romantic traditions in a way that will best appeal to battle-hardened independent twenty-first century woman who aren’t offended watching beautiful rich New Yorkers “struggle” to find a partner.

Fifty Shades breakthrough star Dakota Johnson plays recently-graduated Alice, who spontaneously demands a break from her loving boyfriend of four years (Nicholas Braun), simply for the “experience” of single life. Community cutie Alison Brie is uptight love-hunter Lucy, desperate to find “the one” via strategic online dating. Rebel Pitch Perfect Wilson’s Robin just wants fun, fun, fun rather than any form of commitment, while Leslie Mann plays Alice’s big sister, the career-driven Meg who has no time for a partner or family in her busy life – or does she…?

The “modern” attitudes of many of the characters – including secondary players such as Damon Wayans Jr’s single dad David – infuriated me for their bafflingly selfish decisions and continued self-destructiveness, while the ensemble nature of the plot does occasionally lead to a patchy story. For instance, Lucy’s only connection to Alice’s meatier lead story is that she uses the wi-fi in the same bar, therefore great stretches pass where Lucy isn’t present. She is then crowbarred into Alice’s climatic birthday party (not quite sure how she wangled an invite considering they are effectively strangers) simply to give bachelor barman Tom (Anders Holm) a convenient stage on which to make a bold proposal.

The passage of time is also surprisingly swift, to cover Meg’s IVF pregnancy in full, but this does give the film a flighty tone, with time marked by the celebrating of public holidays, just to make it crystal clear (Christmas! St Patrick’s Day!). The decision to skip ahead three months in the middle of the film was a bizarre move, however, only really explained away in the almost out-of-character subsequent scene which came like a bolt out of the blue.

For all of my grievances, however, the film is buoyed by a terrifically fresh and enthusiastic cast who do perfectly encapsulate their roles, and there are giggles to be had, even if Alice isn’t technically learning how to be single for much of the runtime. But then How to Party, Bed-Hop and Make Random, Stupid Decisions does not a piffy title make. The climax is reached on a surprisingly pro-independent note, however, and I was pleased that not every character lived happily ever after. Told you it was subversive!

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Deadpool (Cinema Review)


15 – 108mins – 2016


THE TOXIC-TONGUED AVENGER

Following the damp squib that was last years’ tonally-unstable Fantastic Four reboot, 20th Century Fox have bounced back from their Marvel mire in spectacular fashion courtesy of director Tim Miller’s long-anticipated big screen adaptation of Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld’s super-offensive masked antihero Deadpool.

The mirror image of Chris Evans’ goody two shoes Cap, spurned and disfigured former cancer-suffering mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) dons a mask to become the titular Captain Controversy and wage an un-civil war on mutant-torturing scientist Francis “Ajax” Freeman (Ed The Transporter: Reloaded Skrein) while simultaneously dodging commitment to the X-Men and using them to win the day and save his kidnapped ex (Morena Baccarin).

Refreshingly distinctive and self-aware from the tongue-in-cheek opening credits (which brandish the cast and crew as “asshats”), Deadpool is a whirlwind barrage of distasteful quips, ultra-violence, gratuitous sexualisation and outrageous injuries, contained in a shiny, meta, self-deprecating wrapper (“McAvoy or Stewart? This continuity is so confusing!”).

Prostitutes, cancer-patients, the disfigured, burns victims, the blind – everyone (including the MCU itself) is ripped a new arsehole in screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s rapid-fire potty-mouthed script overflowing with foul-but-funny barbs and witticisms.

And yet…

There’s a cocky charm to it all, to an extent that the barrage of potentially grim insults don’t sting. This is thanks in no small part to Ryan Reynold’s likeability as the self-confessed “testicles with teeth” and he nails this sour superhero second time around, following a non-sequitur appearance in 2009 misstep X-Men Orgins: Wolverine.

Wade Wilson is such a larger-than-life personality that you don’t even mind that the X-Men seen on screen – Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) – are far from household names. Frequent fourth-wall-breaking digs (“You’re waiting for a sting, with a Sam Jackson cameo, but the budget didn’t stretch that far”) also work in the film’s favour.

R-rated in the US, this messy, NSFW shit-storm somehow avoided an “18” in the UK, perhaps due to the O.T.T. comic book nature of even the most gruesome fight sequences and injuries (kebab-skewering, beheadings, wobbly limbs) which stylishly diminishes the grit and replaces it with wit.

Comic book characters trading cloyingly non-diagetic yuks may bring to mind the camp n’ colourful kiddified neon nightmare that is Batman & Robin, but fear ye not, for Deadpool is perfectly-pitched, intelligently scripted and bucketloads of adult-only fun with a real mass appeal and in-your-face soundtrack to match its slick n’ spunky attitude.

Crisp high five!

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars