Regression (DVD Review)

15 – 101mins – 2015


IN SATAN’S NAME

Troubled and teary, Hogwarts alumni Emma Watson swaps fantasy and wands for terrifying real world worries as 17 year old abuse victim Angela Gray in this dour and humourless psychological drama. Inspired by disturbing actual events, this thriller was written, directed and produced by famed Spanish auteur Alejandro Amenábar, best known for spirited Nicole Kidman chiller The Others (2001).

Mired in darkness, noir-ish shadows and persistent rainfall throughout, Detective Bruce Kenner (a weary and agitated Ethan Hawke) leads a small town police investigation into the repressed memories of satanic cult members accused of horrific crimes in a God-fearing 1990 Minnesota, thanks to the revolutionary – but questionable – techniques of renowned psychologist Dr. Raines (a reliably level-headed David Thewlis).

With shades of spookiness courtesy of some nightmarish and disorientating dream sequences, Regression is competently plotted and makes for occasionally uneasy viewing (if hardly revolutionary given such comparable recent fare as Backtrack and Dark Places). Sadly, Amenábar’s grim tone and washed out palette are let down tremendously by a real damp squib of an “is that it?!” ending which fails to deliver a satisfying sting to this (forked) tale.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars 

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Backtrack (DVD Review)


15 – 90mins – 2015


RAILHEAD

A miserably ‘atmospheric’ and tediously slow set-off which takes an excruciating 25 unexciting minutes to reveal a Sixth Sense-esque supernatural “twist” which was given away in the first line of the back cover synopsis meant that I didn’t journey beyond half an hour the first time I tried to traverse this gloomy psychological thriller from Australia.

Utilising his naturally soft delivery and strained expression, Adrien Brody is perfectly cast as psychiatrist-with-inner-demons Peter Bower, himself seeking help from fellow professional Duncan Stewart (the ever-dependable Sam Neill), following a family tragedy the guilt-ridden family man has failed to recover from.

A mystery surrounding the identity of a strange young girl who keeps showing up at his practise leads Peter to question not only his sanity but his memory, too, and one particular date in 1987, for some curious reason… Backtracking (groan) to his quiet rural homestead in the aptly named False Creek, Peter returns to where his retired cop pa (George Shevtsov) is living a lonely existence to see if he can find some answers in his past and exorcise his troubled mind.

Penned and directed by The Book Thief (2014) and Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) screenwriter Michael Petroni, I hopped back on board the derailed Backtrack after a couple of days out of service, and I’m extremely glad I did. While the pace never races beyond a gallop, once Peter sets the path to clarity in motion, a truly gripping narrative rises to the fore which links all dangling plot threads effectively and culminates in a horrendously grim – but successfully unpredictable – reveal.

If you can look past the hokey pun of a title, persevere through a mopey, stalling introduction, and don’t consider daylight or dry weather a requisite stipulation in your movies, then when you alight at the end of the line, Backtrack will have rectified its shortcomings and delivering a tense and spine-chilling dark mystery.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Ice Age: The Great Egg-Scapade (TV Review)

Channel 4 – 27th March 2016 – 6:15pm


COLD CROSS BUNNY

Invigorating the stark ‘n’ samey white and blue landscape of the glacial era with a pack of perky prehistoric pals profuse with personality, 20th Century Fox’s frosty film franchise – which, scarily, started almost FIFTEEN years ago – has long been among my most frequent go-to’s when I’m in the laidback mood for chucklesome animated adventures.

Successfully juggling child-friendly japes and a warm moral core with parent-pleasing quips – mostly courtesy of hapless-but-amiable sloth Sid (voiced by John Leguizamo) – I have been (quietly) anticipating Ice Age #5 ever since the latest box office smash, Continental Drift, landed back in 2012. Excitedly, Collision Course is heading our way this summer, but to tide us over, Channel 4 broadcast a brand new holiday special this Easter Sunday, in a UK terrestrial premiere.

Totalling a taut 30 minutes including advertisement break, The Great Egg-Scapade reunited the famous voice cast and followed the same format as 2011’s festive short A Mammoth Christmas, with Sid, Manny (Ray Romano), Diego (Denis Leary) et al unintentionally starting the holiday traditions we uphold today.

Continental Drift’s raggedy rabbit pirate Squint (Seth Green, replacing Aziz Ansari) is still seething after the Ice Age-r’s sank his iceberg ship. Ranting to his lazy brother, Clint (Blake Anderson), Squint formulates a plan to get his rascally revenge, by sabotaging Sid’s “doomed” Egg Nursery venture. This leads to a nifty take on the Easter Bunny and Easter Egg Hunts, with Sid’s precious cargo hidden with colourful camouflage painting.

Elsewhere – and for the first time yet – pesky possum pals Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) are given a weighty subplot by trying to plot the first ever April Fool’s Day prank, which works perfectly with their irritat– sorry, hyperactive, temperaments. Only patriarchal Manny’s mammoth brood, wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), are noticeably sidelined, granted all but a couple of lines of dialogue apiece at the start and close, implying character progression in a snapshot.

Flashing back to the events of the last movie, a raft of tongue-in-cheek, self-aware callbacks also help buoy this stand-alone Springtime special in the franchise’s ever-expanding continuity. This is easy-watching family fun, with Manny and Diego’s frustration at not being able to watch the “game” (bird’s wrestling outside their cave’s TV-shaped window) an ingenious highlight. However, unlike the wit-loaded films, I did find The Great Egg-Scapade’s concept funnier than Jim Hecht’s busy script.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

UNEASY LISTENING: An Evening with Clint Mansell (Live Review)


Royal Festival Hall – 24th March 2016 – 8:15pm
Official Website – Get Tickets HERE


THE EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT

I have been enthralled by composer Clint Mansell’s ethereal film scores since I first listened to his stunningly beautiful soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), a severely underrated science-fiction meditation on life, death and resurrection which was elevated beyond the surreal and impenetrable by some of the most dazzling and gorgeous string-lead soundscapes my ears have ever beheld.

Previously best known for the haunting and instantly-recognisable Requiem for a Dream (2000) score (which, trust me, you HAVE heard), Mansell’s subsequent collaborations with Aronofsky – The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014) – have seen his profile, job offers and award recognition rise while his output has remained recognisably… unique.

Mansell himself is all too aware that his “depressing” style of eclectic orchestration fused with electronic blips and bleeps is not to everyone’s taste. His choice of title for this tour certainly alludes to this, playfully, but in honesty, he all too frequently downplayed his talent and ability during lengthy suite introductions at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Thursday night.

Birmingham-born but now living in LA, Mansell seems like a genuine and grounded individual who would be a fascinating interviewee, reciting humorous anecdotes about Hollywood encounters from an almost everyman perspective, but he really needs to have a bit more faith in his own ability! After all, the packed-out audience all thought highly enough of his talent to pay to see him (and in my case, travel down to London for the privilege). The less said of the ridiculous number of “fans” who seemed to use every monologue as an excuse to go to the bar, the better!!

Backed by live instruments – including the Sonas Quartet on strings, and drums which added power every time they were introduced – and framed by a giant screen which complimented the audio delights with artistic visual displays by Alana Alexander, it took some getting used to hearing music I instantly associate with well-known films accompanied by alternative videos.

In some cases they were perfect (such as the trippy, staccato editing of the TV set and commericialist images during High Rise), in others bizarre (startled wildlife by night-vision during Noah) and, sadly, in the case of the goosebump-summoning finale (“Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain), misplaced. I understand the relevance of showcasing scratchy home movies during such a personal piece, but the transcendent music felt at odds with the uncinematic footage, particularly for the show’s crescendo.

Overall, I left the Southbank Centre come lights up at 10pm with decided mixed feelings. Clint Mansell’s majestic music still leaves me awestruck and his personality is magnetically sincere and unfeigned, but his live performance often felt more like an informal studio-hang than a polished concert hall experience.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

The VVitch (Cinema Review)


15 – 95mins – 2016


A HARE-RAISING EXPERIENCE

Complemented by an unsettling score of whining, dissonant strings, this washed out, slow burn olde worlde folk tale about the paranoia and hysteria which bubbles between the depleting members of an exiled family of New-England Puritans is an absorbing, affecting, pitch-perfect exercise in ominous horror and suspense, made all the more astonishing by the fact it is written and directed by a debut filmmaker in Robert Eggers.

Ralph “Finchy!” Ineson is patriarch William, determined to keep his unravelled brood together through the hardship of being excommunicated from their Christian plantation. Setting up home in a solitary farmhouse on the edge of a looming forest, the family struggle to make ends meet harvesting crops and milking livestock, however the mysterious loss of newborn Samuel when in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) begins to drive a wedge between devastated mother (Kate Prometheus Dickie) and child.

Did an invisible witch snatch Samuel and scamper off into the trees to sacrifice the baby, as Thomasin vehemently proclaims? Or was it a wild wolf, as William grimmly believes? And where has oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) vanished to while out hunting in the wood with his sister, who conveniently blacked out when her horse bucked and threw her to the ground after encountering a hare…?

As mistrust and rumours build to a tragic and frightening crescendo – a taut situation not aided by William’s covert pawning of his wife’s precious silverware, or the loose-lipped meddling of playful young twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) – the chillingly tense and palpably unnerving tone, which is masterfully crafted despite a near-absence of jump-scares or CGI trickery, play into a well-constructed parable against religious hysteria and scaremongering.

But beyond this, I also detected an additional subtext in the shadowy undergrowth of this deceptively simplistic film, encapsulated in childhood fears of growing up and leaving your imaginative and carefree days behind. Thomasin is being pushed prematurely into adulthood by her money-conscious parents. She doesn’t want to leave home, so does this fear of responsibility spur on her stubborn, rebellious nature and her dangerously frivolous winding-up of Mercy and Jonas, who blindly frolic with the lively goat Black Philip?

Caleb, meanwhile, is a young lad who has just started to notice the appeal of his sister; he is tempted by the flesh and equally concerned by his budding feelings. When he returns to the homestead following his woodland disappearance, he is naked and incensed, an apple clenched tight in his mouth… is this a subtle reference to the innocent fruit of youth proffered to a naïve Snow White in the Grimm fairytale?

Robert Eggers presents a twisted, loaded vision which taunts us with a myriad of questions but answers few. For the majority of the film you see very little, which makes the power of what you do see all the more sinister and hard-hitting. At times you have to look away it is so shockingly unbearable. Like the family, you begin to doubt your own sense of logic and wonder whether the witch really does exist or whether it is all a product of their hysterical imaginations…

While the conclusion will be contentious for some in its overtness, I have no issue with its devilish delivery and still think you could argue against what is presented as the product of satanic mania. After all, you never see Black Philip’s mouth move – the camera stays focussed on a wide-eyed Thomasin throughout.

When the sight of a hare twitching its nose, or a beautiful young maiden (Sarah Stevens) silently flashing her cleavage in a doorway can unnerve you, then you know a film has you knotted in its gnarled branches. Ultimately, The Witch makes for uncomfortable but rewarding viewing, and like any sustainable folk tale, it will have you debating its message and bewitching nuances for long into the night.

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars

The Forest (Cinema Review)


15 – 95mins – 2016


 
IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY…

… You may bump into Margaery Tyrell, as Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer took a working holiday away from Highgarden in the Reach to journey deep into Japan’s infamous Aokigahara Forest – controversially renowned as a destination for the suicidal – to play the dual lead role of twins Sara and Jess in this taut and atmosphere psychological horror conceived by popular producer David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy).

Convinced her troubled sister, Jess – reported missing while teaching EFL in the East Asian country – is still alive, Sara Price flies out to the base of Mount Fuji and accepts the help of American journalist Aidan (Lady Gaga’s fiancé Taylor Kinney) in searching the vast, dangerous and largely uncharted forest floor, with the dubious assistance of local guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa).

First time feature film director Jason Zada (famed for his digital marketing campaigns) makes effective use of a limited cast and the gloomy flora-drenched scenery of this real-world Mirkwood where fear and uncertainty can lead to distrust, confusion, paranoia and ghostly hallucinations of the dead (known in Japanese folklore as yūrei), vivid enough to break even the most robust spirit.

Unfairly ravaged by critics upon release at the start of the year, The Forest may not be the most strikingly unique or out-and-out scary horror film ever released, but the curiosity factor attached to its physical setting was enough to hook me into purchasing a ticket (to the cinema, I mean… you wouldn’t catch me camping alone in the “Sea of Trees” – especially not after dark!).

Thankfully Zada’s sharp eye for a striking shot means I almost feel like I have experienced as much of Aokigahara as my wits can bear! Furthermore, screenwriting trio Ben Katai, Nick Antosca and Sarah Cornwell’s predilection for layering tricksy psychological scares into a more rewarding and dramatically complex narrative makes for a refreshing departure from the genre’s lazy norm of profuse blood, guts ‘n’ slaughter in lieu of deeper character building.

As the potency of the gnarled and intimidating woodland surroundings lead Sara to question Aiden’s allegiance – as well as her own fragile sanity – I was really enjoying the trippy trek, peppered as it was with enough decent jump scares to keep me tense on the edge of my seat, even if the predictable rug-pull ‘twist’ of a resolution was a mite frustrating when I mulled things over on the drive home.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

COLLABRO ‘Act Two’ Tour (Live Review)


Cambridge Corn Exchange – 17th March 2016 – 7.45pm
Official Twitter – Tickets available HERE


PHANTASTIC OF THE POPERA

Two years and two hit albums on from being crowned Britain’s Got Talent champions, the world’s first self-proclaimed “Musical Theatre Super Group” are back on the road in support of their sophomore LP, last summer’s #2 reaching Act Two, and their stop at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange venue last night marked the unofficial start of the return leg, falling as it did halfway through their 6 week, 27 date nationwide endeavour.

Following a soulful support set from one man and his piano, AJ Brown (who blew me away and will get a blog post all his own in the near future), Collabro-teers Michael, Richard, Jamie, Matt and Thomas were platform-lifted onto the impressive stage (replete with circular stairway to house their own live orchestra) for a technically flawless and uplifting two act show, which kicked off with the rousing “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

The set list successfully combined all their biggest West End and Broadway renditions (“Stars” and “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Mis, “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz, “Memory” from Cats) as well as a healthy smattering of well known songs from other genres (Boyzone’s “No Matter What”, Kodaline’s “All I Want” and some swinging jazz hits) given a unique Collabro makeover. As the crossover kings remarked cheekily before a potentially “cheesy” number:

“Collabro can sing ANYTHING!”

This really was a top class variety performance, with some stellar lighting choices complementing the audio masterclass with visual pizzazz. If I was to be completely honest, as much as I recognised and admired the five piece’s harmonious vocal acumen in the first half, it wasn’t until their return to Les Mis  with “Bring Him Home” and a strapping Phantom of the Opera medley (where they were joined by assured soprano special guest Catriona Murray) in the second act where the full majesty of their powerful voices truly grabbed and moved me like they did on BGT in 2014.

The group were in high spirits in between numbers (even if it did occasionally feel over-rehearsed), breaking from the formality of their smart suits and glitzy ballroom-esque decor to lend validity to song choices (such as one member blubbing watching The Fault in Our Stars), recite humorous behind the scenes anecdotes and banter amongst themselves – at one point even using a selfie stick to snap the whole venue! It was nice to see a more human aspect behind their knockout lungs, and this aided in bringing some humour to an already highly entertaining show.

Bravo, Collabro!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars


Photo copyright Collabro, 2016. No infringment intended. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cd17RwyWwAAhs9d.jpg