Joy (DVD Review)

12 – 124mins – 2016 


 

THROUGH THE WRINGER

“You can’t let the practical get you down…”

Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell reunites his hot-right-now headliners Jennifer Hunger Games Lawrence and Bradley Burnt Cooper for the third time in this enlightening biographical drama about a struggling single mother who overcomes the obstacles of her humdrum domestic existence to become a self-made millionaire in command of her own business empire.

I baulked at the horrendously slap-dash DVD cover when I first saw it on Amazon. For an Academy Award nominated film – for which J-Law won a Golden Globe for Best Actress – of this calibre to receive such a sloppy, lacklustre third-rate effort (it honestly looks like it was flung together in MS Paint in five minutes) scrambled my mind. However, such a cheap, no-nonsense aesthetic does in fact – whether coincidentally or not – perfectly reflect the humble homemade beginnings of Joy Mangano’s (Lawrence) Miracle Mop invention.

“I don’t want to end up like my family.”

But as inspirational as Joy’s determination to succeed in the face of constant upheaval, rejection and negativity is, Joy tries almost too hard to glamorise this very everyday industry success story. This is the “true story of a daring woman,” but Russell and fellow story-writer Annie Mumolo consistently inject Hollywood conventions into the narrative to spruce things up. So we have narration from Joy’s deceased grandmother (Diane Ladd), a non-linear plot structure (“Time moves forward, time moves backwards, time stands still”) and surreal soap-opera induced nightmare sequences.

While the road to commerce Queen is rocky, including back-stabbing, a personal meltdown and bankruptcy (“The world destroys your opportunity and breaks your heart”), the end result is a happy one. However the film delays its happily ever after until a brief epilogue reveal, instead choosing to focus on the negative, with the downtrodden mop-maker forced to reinvent herself like a phoenix from the flames following her lowest ebb.

“When you’re hiding you’re safe, because people can’t see you… But you’re also hiding from yourself.”

In outgrowing commerce giant QVC, Ms Mangano’s journey is certainly a motivational kick-up-the-arse for all those moaning layabouts who blame the world for their woes while sponging off of it. And yet, I still can’t completely scrub away the niggling smudge of doubt in my mind that maybe such a humble story isn’t powerful or dramatic enough to justify such sparkling, A-list treatment? It sounds harsh, I grant you, but then as Joy teaches us: so is business.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Cinema Review)

12A – 112mins – 2016 – 3D


 

… AND INTO THE FIGHT

Surfing high on tides of turtle power thanks to my furious franchise refresh, you may wonder why I went to the effort of rushing out my reviews of the five previous big screen anthropomorphized amphibian adventures quicker than Splinter up a drainpipe only to stall when it came to giving my verdict on the theatrical release of this Platinum Dunes follow-up to their blockbuster 2014 reboot?

The truth is, I was in the cinema on opening day (May 30th), pepperoni pizza in hand (seriously) and mind ready to be blown by the belated big screen bow of “jacked up disco ball” Krang (Brad Garrett) and mutant goofballs Rocksteady (WWE’s Sheamus) and Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), and… Out of the Shadows left me disappointed.

While the second half of Dave Earth to Echo Green’s Michael Bay-produced sewer sequel improves by focusing on Shredder’s (Brian Tee) attempts to locate the fragmented components of an ancient portal-ripping machine in order to open a dimensional rift and bring the Technodrome through to invade Earth, I was still reeling from the Secret of the Ooze-riffing opening half which felt like a chaotic, hyperactive mess of CG-clowning from far too many characters with too few clear-cut motives.

As well as bringing back the turtle’s defeated arch nemesis, his daughter Karai (Brittany Ishibashi) and the faceless Foot soldiers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 also squeezes eye candy Megan Fox as human confidant April O’Neil and Will Arnett as comic relief everyman Vern Fenwick into the story. While I was initially concerned that “The Falcon” was receiving short shrift, his change of fortune is worked into the plot well.

The toy chest is further raided to bring anxious scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler “Madea” Perry) and hockey-loving vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Arrow Amell) out to play alongside the ninjitsu-trained shellbacks and their furry mentor (Tony Shaloub) in bringing down the “chewed up piece of gum” and the rhino and piggy-shaped hench-mutants. It’s no wonder that next to this veritable menagerie of kooky characters, Laura Linney struggles to stand out as the sole straight player in the thankless role of NYC’s Police Chief.

Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec’s script is also rammed full of fan-servicing callbacks (the manhole-projecting Turtle Van; the cartoon theme song as a car horn; Donnie’s ‘toon chops on April’s data-nabbing watch) and effervescent catchphrase-forcing banter (“My man!”). If you’re prepared, it’s a high-energy blast, but if not it’s nearly two draining hours of insufferable, overblown, try-hard map-cappery with the ugliest alien eyesores this side of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

While Out of the Shadows has had its detractors (The Guardian gifted it just one star, while I overheard a Radio 5 Live discussion which was determined to discourage people from seeing this box office hit), I was downcast at the mondo notion that I was among them. However, a raft of positive film blog reviews reaffirmed my faith in the franchise I will always cherish from my childhood. A return trip to the cinema was planned…

And second time was a charm for this busy-but-nostalgic fun-fest. Maybe because my expectations were lowered, or because my mind was more attuned to the frenzied rate of play (the opening five minutes, in particular, gives the impression that everything from prison breakouts to undercover espionage missions, NBA basketball games, celebrity interviews and Halloween parades all take place on one ‘average’ night in the city), but I legitimately found my opinion raised.

I still accept that it has its flaws (the Brazilian rapids rumble is as indecipherably-choreographed and hard to follow as 2014’s downhill slalom, while Stephen Amell is neither cool or rebellious enough to convince as Casey), but it is a baby-step up from Jonathan Liebesman’s antecedent. Nullify your noggin and Out of the Shadows delivers a tongue-in-cheek, pizza-brained barrage of banter and blockbusting bangs for your buck.

While the current Nickelodeon TV series goes from strength-to-strength on the small screen, I still acknowledge that we are yet to hit gold with a fully consistent TMNT movie. But if things continue to improve film-on-film then maybe the all-but-announced trilogy closer will be a real “Cowabunga” classic? My claws are crossed…

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Mad About the Musicals (Live Review)

Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds – Thursday 16th June – 7:30pm

Official Website10th Anniversary Tour Tickets


 

JUKEBOX MUSICAL

Last night I was supposed to be sat in a sea of 80,000 Coldplay fans singing along to “Fix You” at Wembley Stadium, but the fates conspired to alter my plans, so instead I happily accepted an invitation to the oldest Regency Theatre in the county (fact) to watch an M.A. Promotions production called Mad About the Musicals, which is celebrating its 10th Anniversary by bringing former Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates along for a whistle-stop country-wide sing-song.

Fronted by jubilant show creator, producer and director Michael Courtney (who reminded me of Michael Ball, although another member of my group threw Alan Titchmarsh’s name into lookie-likie contention), MAtM’s concept is a simple one: a celebratory selection box of the very best songs from the musicals of stage and screen, intercut with onstage interplay between the five main singers and banter with the audience.

Having not seen any of the previous nine years’ productions, I can only imagine that a need to spruce things up year-on-year has lead to such a broad and diverse set-list this time around. Whilst I have no qualms with being introduced to some of the more obscure gems of the genre, the sheer number of songs – from Funny Girl, Dreamgirls and Jekyll & Hyde to name but three – which I had not encountered before has lead me to re-evaluate what I thought was my rather knowledgeable acquaintance with the genre. As such, I was beholden to Michael Courtney’s introductions when we reached half-time with only numbers from Miss Saigon and a rousing We Will Rock You medley striking a chord with me.

While the second half – opening with an attention-grabbing selection from The Phantom of the Opera and closing with a five song run-through from everyone’s favourite Les Misérables – provided a more comfortably familiar anthology, what stood out most was how underutilised star name Gareth Gates was. He was the first man on stage at curtains up, but after some jovial repartee with compère Michael (including a self-deprecating jibe about Gareth’s strugglesome stutter) he receded backstage and was by far the least seen of the singers through the night.

Front and centre on the posters to get bums on seats, it was also true that new-to-the-company Gareth – whose primary strength is in pop songs, lest we forget – had the softest/weakest voice of the group, with Michael and the terrific trio of leading ladies each astounding with some assured and belting vocal acrobatics, particularly during duets and complex layered harmonies. Any seriousness during some of the more tender ballads (such as Jesus Christ Superstar) did sometimes feel at odds with the over-rehearsed pantomime-esque (mis-)behaviour between songs, but this was a variety show and that they delivered.

Michael made multiple complementary references to the beauty of the diminutive venue, helping to personalise the banter, but despite the Theatre Royal’s revered history, it must be said that size is not its strength. Despite being on row F, I felt close enough to count the hairs in Gareth’s designer stubble! Indeed, when the colourful lighting rig swathed the audience in light during the more upbeat numbers, my heart went out to the live band and singers who were forced to look out at a solid-but-patchy audience, with the front row in particular looking depressingly threadbare. Wembley Stadium, this was not. Nevertheless, the company behind Mad About the Musicals never let their smiles slip and the show went on with theatrically game gusto.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars


Photo and poster courtesy of the official Mad About the Musicals Facebook page – I did not take or design these, nor infer ownership. No copyright infringement intended.

Ocean Waves (DVD Review)

PG – 72mins – 1993


 

LESSONS IN LOVE

One of the more obscure and less renowned films in the peerless Studio Ghibli collection, up-and-coming director Tomomi Mochizuki’s anime adap. of a popular Japanese novel is also known as I Can Hear the Sea (or Umi Ga Kikoeru, if you’re feeling brave with your pronunciation), but was released as Ocean Waves on its belated region 2 DVD debut release in 2009. Originally made for television by a young crew, it ended up going over budget and schedule.

This extras-lite disc (a trailer is the sole bonus content) is also lacking an English dub, so Japanese with subtitles is the sole audio option. Some may argue that this is how it should always be, but I welcome the option. News that the studio giants are sadly winding down production on new films post-When Marnie was There (released this week on these shores) means revisiting and re-releasing these unsung rarities is surely inevitable going forward.

Despite retaining Ghibli’s distinctive calm and graceful tonal atmosphere, Ocean Waves is unfortunately a slave to its age, with a number of cringingly outmoded sexist comments lending an awkward and naïve air to this story of blossoming young love. Pretty transfer student Rikako (Yoko Sakamoto) moves from Tokyo to the sleepy coastal town of Shikoku and makes waves between competitive best friends Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) and Taku (Nobuo Tobita) in their last year of high school.

“You’re only acting up because your teacher’s a woman!”

With these two “innocent country lads” lost in wide-eyed, gaping admiration over Rikako’s beauty, they are seemingly blind to her deceptive ways, which often verges on flat-out manipulation and makes “a girl like that” hard to endear to. Nevertheless, this doesn’t excuse the hefty slap an exasperated Taku (the relatable lead character, I should clarify) executes to knock Rikako to the floor. It’s hard to watch and makes Ocean Waves uneasy viewing.

With nearly an hour of the film consumed by Taku’s memories of this fawning and formative time, Mochizuki executes a technique of opening each new reverie with thick white borders of varying sizes accompanied by scene-setting illustrations which are instantly repeated when the story begins. It’s an interesting visual choice (perhaps enforced by budget?), but certainly makes the film stand out – and leaves a better taste in the mouth than the archaic gender politics which are more narrow-minded than charmingly innocent.

With the stunted 72 minute feature fading on the promise of a happy ending, I can’t help thinking Taku and Rikako’s blossoming relationship is in for a rude awakening. After all, “women are only into how guys look, anyway” (!!). For a young director (Mochizuki was just 34 at the time) stretching his creative wings, Ocean Waves is not without promise or value, but its darker, pubescent attitude jars and mars any of the timeless adolescent splendour we usually associate with the Asian anime giants.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Mother’s Day (Cinema Review)

12A – 118mins – 2016


 

MATERNITY TEST

Not to be confused with either the classic Troma bloodbath or the Rebecca De Mornay remake, calendar-crazed holiday-hound and chick flick-churner Garry Marshall follows up Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Years Eve (2011) with another sickeningly sentimental all-star assembly which mines the greetings card-engineered date for all the schmaltz he can siphon.

Whilst I have no qualms with celebrating the love I have for my mum, Marshall amplifies the significance of Mother’s Day to near-religious proportions in this portmanteau rom-com which intermingles the often less-than-perfect family relationships and love lives of a diverse bunch of weighty actors (including his Pretty Woman lead, Julia Roberts) who are too underused to be held accountable for this groaner, but too eager for a paycheck not to be guilty by association.

Britain’s own Jack Bad Education Whitehall is a pleasantly left-field piece of casting as a burgeoning stand-up comedian plying his trade as a barman to support his long-time girlfriend (Britt Robertson) and baby daughter, while We’re The Millers co-stars Jason “Red” Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston are relatably exhausted as two struggling single parents bringing up tweens. Sadly, every other segment is crudely on-the-nose to the point of being shamefully offensive. Margo Martindale and Robert Pine, I’m looking at you!

Finally, somebody had best inform the Marketing department at Open Roads Films that opening a heartwarming love letter to mothers a week before the UK celebrates Father’s Day is almost as big and embarrassing a faux-pas as Sarah Scrubs Chalke believing a womb on wheels is a suitable concept for a parade float!

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

The Conjuring 2 (Cinema Review)

15 – 134mins – 2016


 

PHENOMENAL PHENOMENA

Fast & Furious 7 director James Wan forwent the opportunity to climb back behind the wheel of the eighth big money Vin Diesel-lead car/heist ensemble in favour of returning to his beloved horror genre and reopening the case files of real life spiritualists Ed and Lorraine Warren.

With 2013’s retro-spooker The Conjuring earning big box office, high praise and a spin-off in demented doll origin story Anabelle (2014), and with the opportunity open for multiple ghost-hunting adventures, Wan reteamed Vera Farmiga (Special Correspondents) and Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as the husband and wife ‘busters and dived into their large backlog of chilling investigations.

Opening by touching on their most famous case (1974’s Amityville murders), this polished and effective sequel then jumps across the pond to a council house in Enfield, England in 1977 where a pesky poltergeist is giving harangued single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children sleepless nights with many an unexplained phenomena – none more chilling than possessing the vocal cords of toothy middle child Janet (a standout performance from Madison Wolfe).

Wan’s attention to detail with the period dress is spot on, so too the overcast greys of lower-middle class Britain. He handles the notorious and well-documented case with aplomb, creating a near omni-tense aura of fear and getting effective scares out of toy fire trucks rolling across the floor and TVs channel hopping all by themselves – usually hackneyed genre tropes.

While the actual ‘haunting’ has been questioned and debunked by sceptics over the years (the sisters have admitted to exaggerating “2%” of the activity, while they were caught on camera faking one para-attack), Wan does a fine job of orchestrating the scares so that the Hodgson’s claims are open to opposition from the outside world. There’s no doubt in the director’s mind, however, that an inhuman presence is terrifying this poor family.

By tying the case so closely to demonic nun visions Ed and Lorraine are having while at home in Connecticut (convenient), the film’s veracity does start to wobble – especially when the activity is ramped up to shark-jumping levels thanks to some obvious CG ghouls, and the Warren’s are painted as the demon-defeating heroes in a story they were really only bit-part players in.

Nevertheless, The Conjuring 2 is still a superior spook-fest which had me properly jumping out of my cinema seat TWICE. True, the long runtime could be snipped to make for a more succinct narrative (the Amityville intro and scenes with the Warren’s underused daughter could easily be excised), but when a horror film is this good, I won’t denounce a bit of superfluous scene-setting – or Patrick Wilson crooning out an Elvis number.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The Sons of Pitches (Live Review)

The Junction, Cambridge – Friday 10th June 2016 – 7pm

Official TwitterTour Dates


 

ACA-FELLA VOCAL GROUP

Having quit their day jobs and hit the recording studio since they won Gareth Malone’s The Naked Choir on BBC 2 last November, a capella six piece Sons of Pitches have now hit the road for a 26 date headlining theatre tour.

Last night’s stop at beatboxer Midé’s home town of Cambridge was their first and only gig where the audience were standing – not that this change of atmosphere affected the banterful British band, as they were on exceptional form throughout their two act 90minute instrument-less set at The Junction’s J1. Besides, an unabating standing ovation was no less than they deserved!

Keyboardist and singer Jessica Rhodes – who is normally backed by a five-piece band but had to make do with just acoustic guitarist Luke – made for an appropriately complimentary warm up act, perfectly combining laidback tracks with a fierce and fiery vocal during a punchy 20minute set.

Audience reaction amplified remarkably when the Joes (Belham, Novelli, Hinds), Midé, Josh and Jamie hit the stage just 5 minutes later, instantly impressing with a perfect fusion of audience interaction, confident banter and enviable talent.

Opening with an in-song introduction from each vocal maestro, the laugh-rate was always entertainingly high. At one point an audience member (of questionable willingness!) was decked out in fancy dress Mexican garb and made to dance with maracas, waiting for the microphone to be thrust his way to shout “Tequila!”

All the songs which saw them victorious in the TV competition (Wuthering Heights, MMMBop in 10 genres, Move, True Love Ways and their Grand Final-winning medley) were well smattered throughout the evening, making for an audience-pleasing diversity of tempos, years and genres (everything from a lengthy boyband medley to dubstep, via Outcast!), while interaction with the up-for-it crowd made for arguably the show’s highlights.

Rearranging well known songs to suit and astound in a capella is a hard enough task when given rehearsal and editing time, but for Sons of Pitches to TWICE create impromptu songs before our eyes last night was a real treat, bringing back memories of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. With the crowd consulted for Cambridge-relevant topics (“Universities!”, “Cycling!”, “Casual sex!” – I wish I was joking) and alternative genres which were written down and added to a pint glass, we witnessed the first ever Christmas song about punting(!). Later in the evening the last line of people’s text messages were polled to create a nursery rhyme/musical fusion called “The Swingball is in the Triangular Shed.”

Such ingenuity was commendable and the group’s pleasure at what they created was palpable, further fuelling their enduring energy, which carried through to a climatic preview of their very own songs, written for their upcoming second album. With so many complex layers to each track it’s difficult to instantly fall in love on a first listen, but the arrangements and delivery were unquestionable stunning – a word which perfectly sums up last night. I will definitely be seeking out tickets for their follow-up tour this November – whether standing on not.

CR@B Verdict: 5 stars