Sunday, 28 February 2010

Gig Review: LADY GAGA @ THE O2

WHO? Lady GaGa, with support acts Semi Precious Weapons and Alphabeat
WHAT? The Monster Ball World Tour
WHEN? 27th February 2010
WHERE? The O2 Arena, London
WHY? Because she's an unknown artist who needs the exposure... yeah right!!

I have been a fan of Lady GaGa's unique brand of colourful disco-funk electro-pop since hearing her debut LP The Fame – and neither that nor her 2009 8-track follow-up The Fame Monster have left my CD player or iPod “Top 25” since (for the record, “I Like It Rough” has been at #1 since last summer). When I heard Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was bringing her Monster Ball World Tour to the UK, I immediately booked tickets, fully anticipating it would sell out sooner rather than later. I was wise to do so.

Seated among a diverse range of 20, 000 fans (including a surprising number of families with young children) in the heavens of Block 414 at the O2 Arena last night, I was fully prepared for a mad but magical night. I was half right. First support act Semi Precious Weapons did their utmost to offend all demographics with their brash, unnecessarily explicit pop-punk act, which involved an expletive every second word and an on-stage costume change for the stiletto-wearing front man during a hideous 20-minute set. Having toured with Lady GaGa since 2006, it's not hard to see why she is now a worldwide megastar, while SPW remain unknown. Let's just say “fruitcake” was the most polite reaction from the crowd seated in our vicinity.

Alphabeat were far more suitably mild-mannered – not to mention entertaining – playing through all five of their singles (to date) and finishing with their fun, pop-tastic debut “Fascination”, without a single swear word or allusion to oral sex. See, SPW, it can be done. As we waited, waited and waited for Ms. GaGa to take to the stage, we were treated to almost all of Michael Jackson's back catalogue (okay, I exaggerate... slightly), which was great fun for me, but by the time we got to “Thriller”, the audience was clearly restless. To collective delight, the track faded halfway through and the arena lights went down...


1. DANCE IN THE DARK (The Fame Monster)

Following a countdown video introduction set to a remix, “Dance in the Dark” was a fittingly punchy opening number, and all the more effective for not being an obvious choice. It was a stylish entrance, with half of the track being sung in silhouette behind a fabric curtain, backlit in pink lights. As the curtain lifted, the stunning and elaborate “Street” set was revealed, kick-starting a conceptualised storyline which ran throughout the concert.

Act 1 – “Street”:
2. GREASE & GLITTER (unreleased)
3. JUST DANCE (The Fame)
5. VANITY (unreleased)

The concept went that on their way to the Monster Ball (funny, I thought we were already there?!), a group of friends – the shows' backing dancers – have the misfortune of their car breaking down. But fear not, for Lady GaGa will guide them to the Ball, over the course of the night and through a myriad of imaginative acts and glamorous set-pieces. The night's opening dance numbers, debut #1 single “Just Dance” and a funky combo of “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” and “The Fame”, were sandwiched between two unreleased tracks – a brave choice, in my opinion – before Ms. GaGa popped the malfunctioning car's hood to reveal a piano underneath (see main photo, above). That'll be the problem then, guys; no engine. What a brilliantly quirky innovation, I thought, assuming this colourful prop would play a large part throughout the evening, only for act one to draw to a close soon after and the car/street set never to be seen again.

Act 2.1 – “Subway”:
6. LOVEGAME (The Fame)
7. BOYS, BOYS, BOYS (The Fame)
8. TELEPHONE (The Fame Monster)
9. BROWN EYES (The Fame)
10. SPEECHLESS (The Fame Monster)

Following another lengthy video interlude, a second impressive set was revealed, including a subway car from which the performers made their (second) entrance. A trilogy of fun, uptempo dance numbers were followed by a pair of heartrenching ballads, as GaGa took to the piano and showed that underneath her flamboyant ways and outrageous costumes, there is great talent. I was quietly disappointed that during these quieter and more reflective numbers, the sound engineers still felt there was a need for bassy beats and overproduced backing. I believe a piano solo would have made a more simple and subtle point. But subtle wasn't an option at this gig.

Act 2.2 – The Glitter Way/Twister:
11. SO HAPPY I COULD DIE (The Fame Monster)

As GaGa and her friends – including an angel with a black harp, not quite sure where they picked her up? – made their way down the Yellow Brick Roa- sorry, Glitter Way, a circular light rig descended around the journeying posse for long enough for yet another costume change. As the so-called twister lifts, Lady GaGa is standing reborn in the popular “living dress” (see photo, right), a remarkably elaborate fairytale costume replete with moving parts, which is paraded to all of the arena as GaGa is lifted high above the crowd during the ethereal “So Happy I Could Die”.

Act 3.1 – “Park”:
12. MONSTER (The Fame Monster)
13. TEETH (The Fame Monster)
14. ALEJANDRO (The Fame Monster)

Unsurprisingly, the trio of songs which comprised the core of the third act – set in a dark and dangerous “Park” shadowed by angled branches and pointed vines – were all taken from the more gothic and mature The Fame Monster. The lampshade-esque dress worn for “Monster” was perhaps the most ridiculous of the night, but it was taken off within minutes. In an unusual divergence from the disjointed storyline, GaGa stumbles upon the eternal fountain of youth and drinks deeply of the blood that flows in it. Family friendly entertainment here, then.

Act 3.2 – ?:
15. POKER FACE (The Fame)

Following another video interlude, we were treated to a real crowd pleaser, as the curtain came down and the opening vocal murmurs flashed across the fabric in red disco lights. Obviously GaGa couldn't NOT perform “Poker Face”, but it felt somewhat wedged into the overall concept, underlining the case that her music is bold enough to stand on its own, without the need for all of these costly and distracting excesses.

Act 3.3 – Monster:
16. PAPARAZZI (The Fame)

We were still in “The Park” for the penultimate number, only now a giant multi-tentacled monster was lurking in the shadows at the back of the stage. Not quite sure why, but it was a truly wonderful prop; creepy, hideous and disconcertingly realistic – pity it 'died' within 4 minutes and wasn't given more time to shine. For an artist who throughout the night continuously remarked about how much she hates money, it would be interesting to know how much this overblown concept cost to realise?!

Act 4 – “The Monster Ball”:
16. BAD ROMANCE (The Fame Monster)
Now inside her gyroscopic spinning ball – which she stepped out of within half a minute!! – and wearing a glaringly shiny outfit, the confusingly complex concert concept came to a head-scratching but high-spirited close; the Monster Ball ended just as Lady GaGa and her friends “arrived”. “Bad Romance” was a wonderful choice of closing song, as the crowd took to their feet and collectively sung “Ga-ga oh-la-la”, but like all the preceeding acts, it was all over and the arena lights were back on before you had really had a chance to appreciate what you were seeing and hearing.

CR@B Verdict: The music was immense, but the over-stylised concept was distractingly busy and overwhelming. Yes, I realise it is all about freedom of expression, but c'mon... I really don't know what parents who had taken their children thought, but I do know the family to my left didn't stay beyond the halfway point.
All photographs from All credit where due :)

Thursday, 25 February 2010


PG – 111 mins – 2009
Directed by: Kenny Ortega
Stage Concept by: Michael Jackson and Kenny Ortega
Starring: Michael Jackson, Kenny Ortega, Travis Payne, Nick Bass, Judith Hill

It is hard for me to review This Is It without extreme bias, considering Michael Jackson is an idol of mine whose career I have followed for nearly 20 years (I’m 25, for those who don’t know me). His planned return to the stage in July 2009 would have been the first time I would have been able to witness his talent live, having missed out on the opportunity to see the HIStory Tour when it came to Wembley Stadium in 1997 (but that’s a whole other story!!). Alas, it wasn’t to be, and with his passing on June 25th last year, the world lost one of the greatest entertainers and humanitarians that ever lived.

This resultant documentary, edited together from nearly 100 hours of preparation and rehearsal footage from April-June by project co-director and long-time Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega, proves that even at the age of 50, and after the numerable cruelties he had had to endure over his all-too-short lifetime, Michael Jackson still had the talent, the vision, the determination and the love (that’s spelt L.O.V.E. :-D) to stand while other’s kicked him down.

Even in their raw and unfinished forms, these performances of his biggest hits still leave you "Speechless" (did ya see what I did there? No?! Well go and listen to Invincible!!). The man was born to perform and he leaves dancers half his age gawping in awe as he glides, sidewalks, pops and locks across the Staples Centre and Forum stage. But Michael Jackson was not content to merely perform; he wanted these shows to be the biggest and grandest shows EVER, with a plethora of amazing outfits, sets, effects and visual accompaniments. Giant “Zombie Brides” would have floated down the o2 aisles while a brand new 3D "Thriller" short film came out of the screen and climaxed with a giant black widow crawling onto the stage and opening to reveal the man himself who would have launched into his creepy 80's classic. It certainly would have been a show to remember, even if, truth be told, we would have been just as spellbound by the man, a microphone and a spotlight. And maybe a fedora.

True, not all of the concepts on show are as polished or complete as MJ – always the perfectionist – would have been comfortable revealing to the world, but this behind the scenes glimpse gives fans a chance to see the man at work, doing what he loved for the last time. It makes for a bittersweet viewing experience; "Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’" makes you want to dance (and shout), "Man In The Mirror" makes you reflect and "I’ll Be There" makes you cry as you realise this may be 'it' for Michael’s time on this earth, but his legacy will live on forever.

Numerous featurettes all elaborate upon all the aspects of the show production – the auditions, the bling-tastic costumes, the set-pieces, the choreography – featuring a number of talking heads all praising the man himself (naturally). In truth, some repeat over similar ground and could easily have been condensed into 2 or 3 sizeable documentaries, while the main reason we are watching – Michael Jackson himself – is only featured in cut-away glimpses. The footage of him and co-choreographer Travis Payne rehearsing dance routines in front of a studio mirror are worth the price of the disc alone (especially when they bust out to "2 Bad" – one of my favourites).

European exclusive bonus feature “The Unfinished Rehearsals” (to be fair, we have had to wait a month longer than our American friends) gives us a glimpse at the ambitious concepts behind "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal", the former - featuring a pole dancer and a fiery bed prop - was due to be rehearsed on June 25th.
The Blu-ray also features the 2009 remakes of "Thriller" (screenshot above) and "Smooth Criminal" short films (although not in 3D as they would have been viewed at the o2), as well as a "Making of Smooth Criminal" vignette, detailing the painstaking process of superimposing a green-screened MJ into classic film noir scenes.

A 24 page photographic archive rounds out the package, which is a nice physical accompaniment to the disc content, featuring a lot of never-before-seen rehearsal stills.

Alas, what is missing from this release are the eagerly anticipated ‘deleted scenes’, AKA, the missing rehearsals: "Dangerous", "Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough", "Rock With You", "Heal The World", "We Are The World", "Stranger In Moscow" and "You Are Not Alone" were all practised, but none are on the disc. No doubt Sony will drip-feed us the additional footage over many years and many re-re-re-re-re-releases. Which is a shame, but us MJ fans are kind of used to that by now… As the man himself sang: “Anything for Money”.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A (Police) Force To Be Reckoned With?

Above Their Station - Pilot
BBC Three, 22/02/2010, 9:30pm
Written by: Rhys Thomas
Directed by: Tony Dow
Starring: Rhys Thomas, Luke Gell, Ashley Madekwe, Andrew Brooke, Dudley Sutton, Denis Lawson, Ruth Connell, Simon Day

The characters are loud, uncouth, hyperbolic stereotypes, the plot requires an acceptance of the absurd and the humour is zany, bordering on brash. Like the abysmal The Persuasionists, this pilot to a potential new BBC Three studio sitcom about the struggles facing Police Community Support Officers, really shouldn't work. And yet, unlike The Persuasionists, somehow it does, bringing to mind the over-the-top, surrealist edge of The IT Crowd, without feeling like a futile retread of that other police-centred sitcom, The Thin Blue Line.

Being imprisoned for swan murder, framing the Ukrainian cleaner (Ruth Connell) of theft and playing a potentially criminal, definitely loony medical doctor (a fabulous turn by Simon Day) at scrabble are all in a day's work for disrespected Essex PCSOs Perry Benson (Rhys Thomas), Len Orbison (Luke Gell) and Kelly Eve (Ashley Madekwe). That is, when they aren't being dangled over a bridge by the local youths, suspended from the ceiling in their underwear by 'propper copper' PC Preston (Andrew Brooke), or fishing colostomy bags out of the staffroom fridge.

Yes, you read that correctly. As I stated previously, Above Their Station requires that you step out of reality and into this scantly distorted hyper-reality. I'm not talking Mighty Boosh levels of surrealism here, but if you cannot accept that a 'mad' scientist works beneath the police station, developing state-of-the-art laser guns and picking the juicy bits out of Tropicana, then this is not a sitcom for you. Personally, I had a blast, once I had adjusted to the logic of this off-kilter world.

The only criticism I would have is that lead character Perry had little impact upon either of the two plotlines running through the episode, spending most of his time following after unworldly Len or fawning over ballsy Kelly, who barely registers his advances. Seems I wasn't the only one. But this is only episode one, and if a series is commissioned, I am sure we will get more of a feel for what his character is about as he is given time to shine. After all, his alter-ego is writing it.

CR@B Verdict: While it isn't the most uniform of concepts, I hope a regular series beckons and gives us a chance to walk to the beat of these beleaguered PSCOs.

Friday, 19 February 2010


WHO? Imogen Heap
WHAT? Ellipse World Tour
WHEN? 12th February, 2010
WHERE? The Junction, Cambridge
To promote her recent album, Ellipse, and connect with her UK fanbase (Why else do artists tour? D'uh!)

A packed Cambridge Junction were in attendance to watch writer/producer/singer/genius Imogen Heap – fresh from her most recent Grammy glory – play a selection of songs from her ever-amassing back catalogue. The stage was a mystical enchanted woodland, with a giant four-dimensional tree (replete with symbols, triangles and all manner of percussive products hanging from the branches) looming large over Immi's electro-deck and renowned transparent-shelled piano. The projection and light display really complemented the music wonderfully and really transported you away from the cramped, sticky-floored venue.

This was more than simply a 'gig', this was a musical and visual experience, with the audience witnessing first-hand the astonishing production which harmonises all manner of blips, bleeps and tweets (the sound-chip of a toy blue tit) into sweet, audible gold. It was truly an immersive experience, and Immi was as humble, chatty and anecdotal as ever – when she wasn't concentrating on her art.

SET-LIST (and album each song is taken from):

2. WAIT IT OUT (Ellipse)
4. HEADLOCK (Speak For Yourself)
5. BAD BODY DOUBLE (Ellipse)
6. SPEEDING CARS (The O.C. Soundtrack)
7. LITTLE BIRD (Ellipse)
8. HALF LIFE (piano) (Ellipse)
9. A-HA! (Ellipse)
10. CANVAS (Ellipse)
11. THE WALK (Speak For Yourself)
12. SWOON (Ellipse)
13. 2-1 (Ellipse)
14. TIDAL (Ellipse)
15. HIDE AND SEEK (Speak For Yourself)
16. JUST FOR NOW (a cappella) (Speak For Yourself)
17. THE MOMENT I SAID IT (piano) (Speak For Yourself)

The entire set was an absolute joy, if totally devoid of any songs from Frou Frou's Details and iMegaphone (not that this was a huge problem), but moments of note from the night include:

-- The guitarist from support act Back Ted N Ted donning a large Immi-esque wig for Bad Body Double. I'm assuming Ms. Heap took it as a good-natured homage, rather than an insult to her crazy do.

-- The projection of hundreds of little birds onto the tree centre-piece during... Little Bird.

-- Audience member, guest cellist and VERY brave soul Anna Scott guesting on A-ha! and being persuaded to stay on for another song – which she had only been told to learn mere hours before the doors opened!!

-- Immi adorned some seriously funky shades as she rocked out on a Key-tar during an extended riff on Tidal.

-- There were no electrical looping equipment (“Parrot”) malfunctions this time around, but Cambridge was the city in which Just For Now *nearly* didn't happen in 2007 (I was present then, too!). Ever since then, the vocally multi-layered track has been sung WITHOUT instruments – and a LOT of faith in the audience's ability to sing... in time. It paid off.

-- Hide And Seek. Simply because it's Hide And Seek.

CR@B Verdict: An awe-some and inspiring experience


Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cine-review: THE WOLFMAN (15)

I had unrealistically high hopes for Universal Studios 21st century update of their classic 1941 creature feature The Wolf Man. I say unrealistic because the film's progress from script to screen was blighted first by the loss of original director Mark Romanek over budgetary squabbles, then by mammoth delays which set it back 3 – yes, THREE – years (it was originally slated for a summer 2007 release). My interest, however, was heightened when I heard Jurassic Park III director Joe Johnston had taken over at the helm, this time swapping scales for hair in resurrecting another blood-thirsty monster for the big screen. Alas, The Wolfman (now all one word, linguists) is more of a dog's dinner than dino-mite.

The plot, which sees estranged nobleman Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) lured back to his troubled family estate after his brother goes missing, is unoriginal cliché-ridden nonsense, replete with angry pitchfork-waving mobs, hidden crypts and mysterious gypsy camps. There is nothing new on offer here, and we have seen everything done so many times before that even the supposed twists fail to shock or surprise. The acting is either criminally low-key (a wooden Hugo Weaving as detective Abberline) or hammier than a platter of pigs in blanket (Anthony Hopkins as Talbot Snr., holder of many secrets). And whoever cast Del Toro as an Englishman should be shot with a silver bullet. The Puerto Rican actor visibly tries to hold back his natural accent throughout the 102 minute duration.

Visually, I cannot fault the film. Victorian-era Britain looks suitably glum and washed-out, and the lycanthropic effects – courtesy of SFX supremo Rick Baker – are a delight. The film also doesn't shy away from blood and guts, although it never goes so far as to make the gore unrealistically cheesy. There are a number of nods to other horror genre staples, most notably Universal Studio's other gothic assets Frankenstein and Dracula, which is a nice touch given how deeply ingrained in popular culture such tales of horror have become, however the musical score – from the usually superb Danny Elfman – is so closely reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar's chillingly atmospheric arrangements for 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, I was fully prepared to file a plagiarism claim.
My major issue with The Wolfman, however, is with the editing, especially in the first half of the film, which jumps jarringly from scene-to-scene and can only be described as a hack job. I was left with the opinion that the emphasis was clearly on the action sequences, and plot development was of secondary importance, being sped through with little care for consistency. Whether this is the result of multiple directors leaving their mark or studio interference demanding cuts, I cannot be sure, but it leads to a bumpy ride which never sits comfortably. A moment's pause – or should that be paws? – in the name of exposition would have really benefited the unsympathetic characterisation. It is a shame, as the film really lets rip once the moon is full and the beast is free to roam.

CR@BHoward's verdict: A bit of a "howler"

Friday, 5 February 2010

GUEST Who's Got Some News?

More of a heads up then a blog, really, but for those who aren't on twitter (and therefore haven't seen my updates - shame on you!): I have contributed two guest reviews of Desperate Housewives' sixth season episodes “Nice Is Different Than Good” and “Being Alive” to film and TV review website Dan's Media Digest, which you can read HERE. And please do!

Here's a screengrab with some high-tech highlighting of yours truly:

I'm rather chuffed, to be honest :)

Meanwhile, in other blog-worthy twitter-lation (yes, that's a pun):

And I'm spent. G'day y'all!