Sunday, 21 December 2014

Widowers' Houses @ The Orange Tree Theatre

Rarely does a day go by without a friend moaning about their landlord, or the mould in their home, or how long it takes for repairs to be done.  And that's just us twentysomethings, let alone the countless people living in abject poverty in and around London.

It seems the situation was very similar over a hundred years ago when Bernard Shaw was writing this, his first play, which premiered in 1892.  Widowers' Houses was published as part of his 'Plays Unpleasant', aimed not at entertaining but at raising awareness of social issues: in this case housing.  The play follows the young doctor Harry Trench (Alex Waldmann) who refuses to marry the considerably wealthy Blanche (Rebecca Collingwood) on account of her father (Sartorius - Patrick Drury) earning his money by renting out slum housing to the poor.

It's a play in which business, romance and morality collide - Trench battles with his moral compass and his feelings for Blanche, assisted by his confidant Cokane (Stefan Adegbola).  Waldmann is excellent as Trench, a man desperate to do the right thing, whilst Adegbola's Cokane is an eccentric yet blunt gentleman with wry asides to the audience (often, amusingly, in French).  Drury's Sartorius is no straightforward villain, however, but more a shrewd man wanting the best for his daughter; his assistant Lickcheese, though, is a slimy and manipulative businessman played with delicious nastiness by Simon Gregor.

The set comprises a map of London that spreads around the audience (in the round) to highlight the central theme.  However, it is mainly a backdrop to the romance between Trench and Blanche that remains the most gripping, 'will they won't they' element of the narrative.  Collingwood's Blanche is a surprisingly modern character - a headstrong woman with a fierce and aggressive streak, and a woman who refuses to be undermined by men, either Trench or her own father.  The erotic tension between the characters, in the final scene especially, is palpable.

Widowers' Houses, then, is a play that remains as relevant now as it was to Victorian London.  It couldn't be more different to the previous play at the Orange Tree Theatre, Pomona - witty, lucid and frequently amusing, whilst still presenting a thought-provoking narrative.


Watch: Widowers' Houses runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 31st January.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Into The Woods (2014) - Rob Marshall

There’s a pretty big name on the poster for Into The Woods.  No it’s not Meryl Streep.  Or Johnny Depp.  Or Anna Kendrick.  Or any of the star-studded cast.

It’s Disney.

Now, Disney may seem like a suitable choice to produce a film based on a musical based on fairytales.  Sondheim’s show intertwines the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and more, as well as a Baker and his wife on a quest to obtain magical items to dispel a curse on their home that is preventing them from having a family.  Except this is no children’s story.  The end comes at the halfway point; Sondheim then explores the meaning of “happily ever after”.  It’s a plot that questions morality and parental responsibility, with a surprising amount of sex, violence and death.

With Disney at the helm, much of this has been altered, the essence of the film lost.  Character traits have been softened; whole characters are missing; certain deaths no longer occur; any violence is quickly glossed over and deaths are forgotten; and the ending (whilst faithful to the original) is utterly saccharine.  The darkest moment comes from Johnny Depp’s Wolf and his disturbingly sexual song to Little Red Riding Hood, though even that has been toned down somewhat.

Still, director Rob Marshall has attempted to bring a sense of realism that belies the fairytale origins.  The overall colour palette is dark and sombre that lends the film a washed out dreary feel – the lack of visual excitement doesn’t help a narrative that drags with its meandering second half.  Within this setting, much of the script’s clichéd dialogue is laughable.  This, then, is the dichotomy of the film: it is neither a children’s story, nor an adult one.  Instead, it pleases nobody and lands in a forgettable, mediocre middle ground that makes this trip into the woods something of a slog.

The performances, too, fall into one of these two categories, leading to a wildly inconsistent tone.  Some accents are English, some are American; some actors sing classically, others have pop inflections; some play cartoon characters, others seek the emotional truth.  It smacks of poor direction.  Meryl Streep’s Witch, for instance, is little more than a blue-haired pantomime villain with a wispy soprano, occasional vulnerability and appalling make-up.  Chris Pine’s Prince Charming is melodramatic, but it’s at least very amusing, complete with camp swoon-inducing shirt rip.  On the other hand, there’s James Corden as the Baker doing his usual cute, endearing shtick, and Emily Blunt as his wife, who delivers a quirky, believable and surprisingly moving performance.  Yet Blunt and Pine in the same scene is like two actors from two different films; they simply don’t mesh.  Perhaps that’s the point, in which case it’s not pushed far enough.

Anna Kendrick excels as Cinderella – a headstrong depiction of the character and an actress who can actually sing, in a cast whose vocals are severely over-produced.  The actors may look the part, but they don’t always sound it.  Most annoying vocally, though, are the two children – Lilla Crawford’s squeaky Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone’s cockney Jack (of beanstalk fame - basically Toby from Sweeney Todd and Gavroche from Les Mis spliced together).  And you'd barely recognise Frances de la Tour as the Giantess.

At the very least, Into The Woods brings Sondheim’s wonderful score to a broader audience.  There are certainly similarities with the rest of his oeuvre, but even on celluloid his gorgeous melodies and orchestrations soar.  It ensures there are some poignant moments in the woods, such as the pause in time for Cinderella’s “On The Steps Of The Palace” and (incidentally) the Baker’s Wife’s “Moments in the Woods”.  Yet these are merely tiny sparkles in a film that’s mostly devoid of magic.


Watch: Into The Woods is released on 9th January in the UK.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Christmas Carol @ The Old Red Lion Theatre

It takes a creative mind indeed to bring something novel to Dickens’ classic Christmas tale.  Luckily for production company Metal Rabbit, they have director Gus Miller at the helm.

Miller has directed a clever and inventive retelling of A Christmas Carol, where its minimalist design highlights some brilliant touches and effects.  Props and set take the form of everyday objects, all lit by Matt Leventhall’s lighting design.  Polystyrene snow drops gracefully from the hands of the cast and lit by torchlight, for instance, whilst Christmas wrapping is ripped apart to depict rapidly devoured food, a plastic bag is used as a puppet, and tinsel represents the exchanging of money.  The set itself, though, is shabby and dishevelled, consisting of seemingly random objects strewn across the floor – probably meant to reflect the poverty surrounding protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, but adding little to the design.  With many of the scenes taking place in the dark, this hardly matters.  The costumes, meanwhile, are an odd mix of Victorian top hats and modern outerwear that are at once timeless yet confused. 

That said, this is a more abstract take on the story and the production as a whole has a charming and poetic sensibility.  Mostly this comes from the imaginative and energetic ensemble, all playing multiple roles.  As Scrooge percussively clinks a chain to suggest his money counting, the ensemble cower next to him delivering their lines with a staccato rhythm; later they sing Christmas carols with both joyful and haunting effect, twisting their meaning.  This is a group of multi-talented performers who exude warmth but equally can frighten and disturb.  After all, this is as much a story about the supernatural as it is a cheery fable.

At the centre is Alexander McMorran as Scrooge.  Far from a grotesque pantomime villain, this is an understated and believable performance of a man gradually coming to terms with his wrongdoings.  By the end he is suitably endearing, and his change in character surprisingly moving.  Stood in his long-johns he seems fragile and literally stripped back – just like this production.

Metal Rabbit have created a Christmas show that manages to offer something a little different, whilst maintaining the feelgood charm and cheer that we all know from this story.  If you’re looking for something atypical this Christmas, this comes recommended.


Watch: A Christmas Carol runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until the 3rd January.

Pictures courtesy of Anna Söderblom

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint

It’s fair to say that 2014 has been the year of the ass, from songs like J-Lo and Pitbull’s ode Booty, to Kim Kardashian’s ‘Break The Internet’ photo shoot.  Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda was perhaps the most shocking instance of bum loving with its Sir Mixalot sample, provocative lyrics (“f*ck those skinny bitches in the club”) and meme-inducing video that makes Miley Cyrus twerking look like a daytime Disney show.

Don’t be fooled, though.  Anaconda might be the lead single from ‘The Pinkprint’ but it’s far from indicative of the album at large.  Instead, Minaj has mostly stripped away the caricatures and neon wigs for a far more serious, and dark, tone.  Opening autobiographical track All Things Go discusses family issues, violence and death over a minimal trap beat, whilst second track I Lied explores self-preservation in heartbreak over sombre, spectral production.  Later there’s the mid-tempo stuttering Favorite that features Jeremih doing a great Drake impression, a duet with Meek Mill in Buy A Heart and its whirring electronic production, and the downbeat ballad Pills N Potions that’s perhaps her most personal track to date.

A major highlight, is The Crying Game, a song that features vocals from Jessie Ware.  It may seem like an odd pairing but in practice it’s sheer brilliance.  Ware’s modern-soul style fits neatly with the R&B infused hip-hop of ‘The Pinkprint’, Minaj spitting out the pensive verses and Ware hauntingly slinking around the chorus melodies.  It’s a song that epitomises two female artists at the top of their game.

And with a name like ‘The Pinkprint’ (probably a nod to counter Jay-Z’s ‘Blueprint’ albums), this is something of a feminist manifesto that proves Minaj can take on the boys.  As a return to a core rap sound for this album, Minaj more than stands up to scrutiny compared to her male contemporaries, the likes of which she collaborates with on Only – Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown.  “I never f*cked Wayne I never f*cked Drake, all my life man f*ck’s sake”, is the aggressive line that opens her verse.  And on Feeling Myself she duets with the Queen Feminist herself Beyoncé, Bey knowingly spinning the line “changed the game with that digital drop, know where you was when that digital popped, I stopped the world” in a statement of feminine power. 

It’s not all serious, though, as Anaconda exemplifies.  Minaj has always been best when she’s toying with both pop and rap (see Super Bass) and ‘The Pinkprint’ is no different.  Pop princess Ariana Grande sings on the deliciously sensual Get On Your Knees and Skylar Grey features on the (fairly trite) pop ballad Bed of LiesTrini Dem Girls sees Minaj hurling herself into Jamaican dancehall that will no doubt compete with Anaconda in the twerking stakes.  The Night Is Still Young, meanwhile, is pure pop dance – something we’ve seen before from Minaj, but equally something she does so well.

‘The Pinkprint’ is a long-winded album, particularly in deluxe form.  The likes of Want Some More and Four Door Aventador are little more than rap padding, final track Grand Piano is another needless ballad, and the odd lyric feels stilted (Only’s “yeah, that was a set up for a punchline on duct tape” especially).  Overall, though, the good far outweighs the bad.  Most of the year has seen Iggy Azalea taking over the charts, but she’s been superceded by Minaj as the female rapper on top.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* The Crying Game
* Get On Your Knees
* The Night Is Still Young

Listen: ‘The Pinkprint’ is available now.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (2014) - Peter Jackson

The Hobbit should never have been split into three films.  As a short concise fairy story it works.  There’s no need for Peter Jackson’s ego-boosting padding, designed predominantly for him to wallow in Tolkien’s world for a little longer before wallowing in his own cash.  The essence of the book has been diluted.

This is clearer than ever watching The Battle Of The Five Armies.  We jump straight in where the last film left off, which (for anyone who’s blocked it from their memory) means Smaug the dragon is rampaging over the skies of Laketown, burning it to the ground.  Boo hoo.  The rest of the film is essentially one long battle.  That’s it.

It’s an utterly imbalanced film, with all characterisation thrown out the window.  Instead, it relies on knowledge of the flimsy (at best) characterisation from the previous films.  The dwarves remain mostly nameless, with their moody teenager of a leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) dominating the screen as he suffers from “dragon sickness” – just an excuse for him to brood a little more.  The love story between Tauriel the elf (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) is a laughable cliché - totally under-developed and lacking any chemistry or plausibility.  And for a film called The Hobbit, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is woefully underused, merely providing the odd bit of comic relief.  At the least, Ryan Gage amuses as Alfrid, the assistant to Stephen Fry’s terrible Master of Laketown.

This does allow for Jackson to focus on what he does best: battle scenes.  There’s no denying that these fast-paced and thrilling fight sequences are spectacular.  In particular, an early scene involves Gandalf (Ian McKellen) uncovering the rise of Sauron (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) – together with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) they fight the ghosts of the nine human ring-bearers with some hypnotic magical effects.  It remains, however, more relevant to Jackson’s other trilogy than integral to this story.  Elsewhere, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas follows up his role in LOTR with some bombastically choreographed fighting and the titular five armies come to blows in impressive fashion - from the blood-thirsty orcs, to the brutal dwarves and the balletic elves.

A word, though, about watching in HFR.  Essentially, Jackson has filmed the trilogy using a higher frame rate which gives the image a sharper, smoother look.  It’s meant to aid immersion and that’s certainly the case, as well as enhancing the 3D effect and highlighting the beauty of the stunning vistas of New Zealand.  However, as has been noted before by many, it cheapens the look of the film, no longer having that polished cinematic ‘sheen’.  What's worse with this film specifically, though, is that it highlights Jackson’s overuse of CGI.  Whilst it’s obvious why whole armies have been rendered by computer, Billy Connolly’s Dáin the dwarf is needlessly a completely CGI character and it looks terrible, whilst the studio sets look sets.  In HFR, it becomes hugely apparent what is real and what isn’t, making watching The Battle Of The Five Armies more akin to a video game.  It’s wholly artificial.

Characterisation (or the lack thereof) is the biggest downfall of the film though.  The LOTR trilogy proved Jackson knows his way around a battle sequence, but the difference is that those films had well drawn characters we were invested in, dramatic build up and far less use of CGI, ultimately leading towards a huge emotional payoff as good triumphs over evil.  By comparison, The Hobbit trilogy is utterly soulless.


Watch: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is out now.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Gizzle Review's Top Theatre of 2014

10. Memphis

Why it made the top 10:
To be perfectly honest, Memphis is worth seeing alone for Beverley Knight’s vocal.  After an underappreciated pop career, she’s finally found a new home on the West End stage with a hugely powerful voice of soulful tones and impressive riffing.  Add in a superb supporting cast, some energetic choreography and a heavy dose of fun, and it more than makes up for the sometimes lacklustre score and important, if overdone, narrative of racial integration.

“In short Beverley Knight is a sensation.

9. King Charles III

Why it made the top 10:
Mike Bartlett’s reimagining of our modern day Royal Family as a Shakespearean history play is an incredibly clever piece of satire.  Grand stately drama is juxtaposed with witty modernisms, whilst the performances are biting without resorting to impersonation.  The play’s ending could have pushed the boundaries further, but this remains a gripping indication of the imminent future of our monarchy.

“This is no dramatic flight of fancy – instead it offers both intelligent comment on the current state of Britain and a tightly-woven family drama.

8. The Scottsboro Boys

Why it made the top 10:
Musicals are a frequent platform for issues of racism, but few are as daring as Kander and Ebb’s ironic minstrel show.  Its contrast of dark comedy with social message is hilarious and provocative in equal measure, the show full of powerful imagery and storytelling.  The score doesn’t quite match the duo’s best, but the direction, choreography and performances of this production ensure the show is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The Scottsboro Boys may not be the strongest show in the Kander and Ebb canon, but this production still packs an emotional punch with its earnest social agenda.” 

7. Once

Why it made the top 10:
One simple reason really – I cried.  For a cold hearted bastard like me, that says a lot.  Why so emotional?  Really it’s the show’s sense of honesty.  The characters are touchingly human, the production is subtle and intimate, and the music impresses for its yearning melodies, sublime harmonies and authentic onstage performances.  Recent cast changes may have altered the tone of the piece (I haven’t witnessed Ronan Keating myself, though Zrinka Cvitešić and Declan Bennett were outstanding at the start of the year), but few shows offer such an emotional night at the theatre.

“By the end, the opening notes alone of Falling Slowly were enough to set me off.  I think I’ve found my kryptonite.”

6. In The Heights

Why it made the top 10:
Yes the story of this Tony Award winning Broadway hit is the usual trite about young love, but the show’s UK premiere at the start of the summer proved that sometimes plot can be outweighed by a superb production.  Latin fire pairs with American hip-hop in both the contemporary score and sizzling choreography and whilst the hugely talented young cast performed with boundless and infectious energy, they also mastered effortless cool.

“ In The Heights is all of the best ‘s’ words: sassy yet sensual, sweaty, smouldering and simply superb.

5. The Book of Mormon

Why it made the top 10:
Mormon has proven to be a phenomenal West End hit and with high ticket prices and limited availability, it took me until this year to finally see it.  And it was worth the hype.  As you’d expect from the creators of South Park, it’s rude, crude and obscenely hilarious – certainly one of the most extreme shows out there.  Yet beneath it all is a slick, polished and well-constructed musical.  The score cleverly parodies other shows whilst maintaining its own adult charms; the book is crammed with biting wit in its portrayal of modern religion; and the cartoon performances are exceptional.  There really is nothing else like it currently running on the West End.

“It is breathtakingly funny and silly, but it’s got the music, comedic book and talented cast to back it up.”

4. Matilda The Musical

Why it made the top 10:
Another show that took me until this year to see, Matilda was definitely worth the wait.  Far from a revolting children’s show, the mischievous humour and gruesome violence is more than “a little bit naughty”, providing enough entertainment for all the family.  Wonderful directorial touches bring the show to life into the audience, whilst Miss Trunchball is one of the greatest stage villains of recent years.  At its core though is the heart-warming relationship between the plucky Matilda and the meek Miss Honey, the source of much of the show’s boundless charm.

Matilda The Musical is the very definition of feel-good theatre that will have you grinning from ear to ear and wishing you never have to grow up…” 

3. American Psycho

Why it made the top 10:
Rupert Goold’s production of this new musical, based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, received a short run at the turn of the year that made a lasting impression.  By downplaying the novel’s brutal violence, the narrative took on a more psychological tone in its dark satire of capitalism and the superficial, hedonistic lifestyle of 1980s Wall Street.  Some complained about Duncan Sheik’s vacuous electronic pop score, but that was somewhat the point.  Everything about the show was cold, clinical and artificial – from the use of autotuned vocals, to the stunning set design and the vibrant fashion of the costumes.  The flat, awkward performance from Matt Smith in the central role of Patrick Bateman was a perfect fit in what was one of the year’s sexiest yet most disturbing shows.  A West End transfer still needs to happen.

“No other musical since Sweeney Todd has revelled in psychotic, villainous behaviour quite like this.”

2. Let The Right One In

Why it made the top 10:
Let The Right One In brought some Nordic noir flair to the West End this year, based on the Swedish film of the same name but reimagined in the dark, snowy highlands of Scotland.  At its heart, the story is a simple coming-of-age tale twisted into a surprisingly tender story of vampires and bullying that celebrates the outsider.  Here, its painfully sad story unfolded at a glacial pace through sombre atmosphere, beautiful set design and melancholic music, punctuated by horrifying stage effects.  The sympathetic performances only added to the chilling nature of this unnerving romance.

“Its stunning production elevates this twisted tale of the outsider into something strangely and tragically beautiful.

1.  Assassins

Why it made the top 10:
By now you’ve probably noticed my taste for dark, twisted theatre and 2014 saved the best until last.  And of course it took a Sondheim show to make it happen.  His humanising of America’s most notorious killers is wickedly unhinged, satirising the American Dream in a slightly convoluted plot that blurs reality with a fictional circus game (“you wanna shoot a President?”).  The cast of characters are truly psychotic yet curiously sympathetic, singing in a variety of styles that mock traditional American music.  In Jamie Lloyd’s production (still running at the Menier Chocolate Factory) the circus setting is grimly realised with monologues delivered from dodgem cars, an oversized clown head dominating the stage, ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs lighting up after each gunshot, and stunning use of blood red confetti.  The cast, too, are exceptional  - some hilarious, some mournful, all of them weirdly engaging.  Assassins is a show that revels in darkness and gleefully subverts our expectations.

“There’s plenty of humour in this dark satire, yet for all its psychotic performances and cleverly fantastical directorial touches from Jamie Lloyd, there is a frightening realism bristling beneath the surface.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cats @ The London Palladium

Look, there’s only one question we all want answered: how good is Nicole Scherzinger?

Well, she’s superb.  Hers is a Grizabella of tragic, fading beauty.  Far from just a popstar, she has a powerful yet emotionally nuanced voice that makes her mournful delivery of “Memory” both touching and sonically impressive.  She is perhaps a little young to play the older glamourpuss and her American accent does stick out in a very clipped British show, but she is a pop performer who is worth the hype of having her name on the poster.  What’s more, she’s incredibly humble – she is not given the honour of the final bow and she fits in neatly with the rest of the cast, despite receiving rapturous applause after singing the rest of them off the stage.

In short, honey, she was LIV-ING.

Of course, Grizabella is just one small part in an ensemble show that is, essentially, an elaborate poetry reading.  Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber turns T. S Eliot’s poetry into a sort of feline papal conclave as the cats choose one attendee of their “Jellicle Ball” to receive new life.  Yes, the thin veil of plot is as nonsensical as ever - Gus the theatre cat’s extended pirate dream sequence, for instance, is bizarre and unnecessarily drags out an already long show - but it’s not helped by some poor diction (sung and spoken) that renders many of the lines unintelligible and some cast members take the shrieking cat element of their singing too literally.

It’s also not helped by balance issues between the orchestra and singing, whilst the cheap synth sounds are an old relic from the show’s 80s origins.  The score itself also hasn’t aged well, consisting of repetitive childlike melodies and muddled word-setting that doesn’t aid the minimal narrative.  Despite some memorable tunes, even ALW fans must admit this isn’t his best material, even if it’s impossible to leave without “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” in your head. 

That said, as much as Cats is billed as a musical, more than anything it’s a ballet.  In that respect the dancing is exceptional.  This production has stuck with the original choreography and twenty years later it remains as innovative and exhilarating as before.  Its mix of ballet and classical dance with feline characterisation is as cleverly imaginative as it is sexy, whilst the gymnastic displays are spectacular and a tap routine during “The Old Gumbie Cat” injects some energy into the first act.

However, there has been one major attempt to unnecessarily modernise the show for this revival.  The Rum Tum Tugger has been transformed into some sort of East London rapping hip-hop cat.  His street dancing may be impressive, but it’s stylistically out of sync with the rest of the show, whilst his rapping is out of time and an annoying addition to other songs.  It’s inexcusable for this character to be so unlikeable.

As the internet is transfixed by cat gifs these days, theatregoers can once again be mesmerised by Cats.  Watching the lithe cast slink around the stage in their fantastical costumes is a strangely sensual experience.  Add in an elaborately trashy set and some wonderful lighting that sparkles over the audience and Cats still delivers a magical experience – with or without that star cast member.


Watch: Cats is booking until the end of February.  Scherzinger ends her run on the 7th February.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre and SeatPlan.
For info on SeatPlan, visit their website:
To see Official Theatre's Rebecca Felgate rapping dressed as a cat, scroll down...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Gizzle Review's Top Films of 2014

10. The Wolf Of Wall Street

Why it made the top 10:
Ok so DiCaprio is still without an Oscar win, but his performance here is fantastic.  As the charismatic Jordan Belfort, he’s charming, delivers a cracking speech and induces howls of laughter with his drug-fuelled attempts at driving.  And in a career defining year for Matthew McConaughey, we now have that iconic chest thumping mantra.  The film tells a very debauched and dark true story, but it’s never less than hugely entertaining.  Let’s just forget about Jonah Hill’s wang shall we?

Ultimately, though, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a cautionary tale on living to excess, the effects of greed and the darker side of the American Dream.  Whether the film revels too far in its hedonistic debauchery is simply a matter of taste.”

9. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1)

Why it made the top 10:
The third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy failed to live up to the hype of the first two, but the magic of The Hunger Games films is that they defy expectations: they’re better than the books.  Sure, Mockingjay is a dystopian fantasy thriller about a young girl leading a revolution against a cruel government.  Yet even in half a film, it manages to explore issues of the power of media and propaganda, as well as tapping into elements of modern warfare for its visual style.  And in Jennifer Lawrence we have a truly inspiring leading lady.

This dark, dystopian tale has captured the minds of a generation.  Whilst the plot and characters alone are intriguing, this third film lends a level of visual realism that transcends the fantasy of the novels.” 

8. The Lego Movie

Why it made the top 10:
As the theme tune incessantly goes, “everything is awesome”.  The Lego Movie is that rare thing: a true family film that kids and adults can enjoy together.  It captures the anarchic joy of childlike creativity, whilst providing layers of satire and parody that subvert the usual movie tropes.  The dream cast, the witty script and the visual flare make for a film brimming with charm that reminds us all that rules are made to be broken.

The film is, quite literally, an insight into the mind of a child, a world where the possibilities of creation are endless, not limited by walls, glue or instruction manuals but by your imagination.

7. Grand Budapest Hotel

Why it made the top 10:
The world of this crazy hotel is a playground for everyone involved.  Wes Anderson’s cartoon style pops with over-the-top theatricality, the chaotic cinematography and bright pastel shades framing what is a rather silly murder mystery plot.  And its cast of A-list actors are clearly having a blast in their various cameos – some extensive, some simply amusing one-liners.  At the centre of it all is Ralph Fiennes as the eccentric protagonist as we follow him on this manic ride.

What exactly it all amounts to beyond a silly journey through European opulence is unclear, but Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t fail to entertain.”

6. Gone Girl

Why it made the top 10:
Gone Girl is the sort of divisive film that stirs debate long after the credits.  Whether you side with Nick or Amy is just one of many questions the film throws up, exploring the reality of marriage and the fickle nature of the media, all to a stylish and clinical vision of America.  This is a bleak, provocative and often disturbing psychological thriller, but the less you know before you watch the better.  If you’re yet to see it, hurry up and join the debate.

"Gone Girl is a disturbing yet thought-provoking film that’s quite possibly the best thriller of the year.”

5. Under The Skin

Why it made the top 10:
Issues of identity and what it means to be human are frequently explored in science-fiction, but few are as startling as Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin.  With its disturbingly abstract cinematography, it’s a film that questions more than it answers, lulling us into its nightmarish rhythms just as Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien lulls her male victims into an unexplained void.  This is a hypnotic, fantastical and avant garde piece of filmmaking that, with its setting of modern day Glasgow, feels strangely real.

“Glazer’s film is a fusion of science-fiction and body horror that’s mesmerising, disturbing and intensely erotic.”

4. Interstellar

Why it made the top 10:
Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be the master of mind-bending cinema.  Not content with his dream-within-a-dream concept, in Interstellar he employs scientific theory to baffle the audience – perhaps too much – in a cerebral space opera that tackles huge philosophical questions about our place in the universe.  It’s his most ambitious film to date, matched by stunning cinematography, a rousing score from Hans Zimmer (who else?) and some surprisingly emotional performances from Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway.  For that alone it’s one of the cinematic events of 2014, but no other film has aroused such intellectual and scientific intrigue this year.

Through its mesmerising symphonic structure and expansive narrative that tackles some demanding scientific and philosophical questions, this is less a space odyssey and more a space opera.

3. Pride

Why it made the top 10:
In a year where the first same-sex marriages took place in England, contrasting with dire situations in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria, the importance of a film like Pride cannot be underestimated.  Presenting the unlikely alliance of a group of gay Londoners assisting a small Welsh mining town during the miners strikes of Thatcherite Britain, it’s an overwhelmingly positive story that smashes homophobia square in the teeth.  Yet beneath that is a thoroughly British comedy drama that explores a dark period of modern history, inspires a huge amount of pride in our country, and features Imelda Staunton waggling an oversized dildo.

“…this is a film of overwhelming positivity with an eminently quotable script; a drama first and a history lesson second.  Charm simply radiates from the screen.

2. Her

Why it made the top 10:
It’s been a busy year for Scarlett Johansson, but her performance in Her is perhaps her best and it’s all in voice only.  Who else could inspire Joaquin Phoenix to fall in love with an operating system?  Spike Jonze’s film may seem trite in its themes of what it means to be human, sentient technology and the power of love, but not only is it fascinating and relevant to the future of society, it’s undeniably touching.

“In reality, Samantha is only one step on from Apple’s Siri.  Science-fiction meets tender love story could be the future of our relationships and we have this beautiful and thought-provoking film to thank.

1. Whiplash

Why it made the top 10:
Whiplash is the most intense film of 2014.  J.K. Simmons surely deserves an Oscar for his performance as Fletcher, the conductor of a New York conservatory jazz band and the embodiment of evil.  He pushes jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) to the extreme, but is that what it takes to reach godlike status and become the best you can be?  Or is Fletcher simply feeding his own ego?  The chemistry between the two actors is palpable in their Faustian stand-off, but what’s most remarkable is that director Damien Chazelle is able to deliver much of this storytelling wordlessly through an electrifying jazz score and cinematography that highlights the physicality of musical performance.  This is essential viewing not just for musicians, but for all fans of cinema.

“This is simply an extraordinary piece of cinema, combining music and visual storytelling in explosive unison.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Gizzle Review's Top Albums Of 2014

Well this was a tough decision.

2014 may have been low on superstar standout albums (unlike the influx of major artist comebacks last year), but there were a tonne of very very good albums almost impossible to rank.  Some artists made welcome returns, others launched their careers with impressive debuts that lived up to considerable hype.  And above all, Scandinavia produced some of the best music all year.

As for great singles, 2014 was crammed full of them: from ubiquitous pop hits, to countless faceless dance acts and, of course, a certain snow queen.  There’s a handy Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post.

What’s really amusing is the gender disparity between critical and commercial success.  The bestselling albums of the year are predominantly from boring male acts: namely Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Paolo Nutini and Coldplay.

The best pop though?  That was down to the females…

10. Beyoncé  – Beyoncé

Why it made the top 10:
Ok, it technically came out in 2013, but it was too late in the year to be included in last year’s lists.  Besides, the Platinum edition arrived just a couple of weeks ago.  And you’ve been listening to Drunk In Love more this year than last, right?

Not only did this album coin the verb “to Beyoncé an album”, it revealed a darker, sexier side to the Queen of Pop, not to mention her meme-inducing feminist manifesto in ***Flawless.  The last few tracks may descend into soppy family slush and the concept of a ‘visual album’ is flawed, but the first half of the album is near perfection.  Pretty Hurts is also the best thing Sia’s done all year.

“…she’s consolidated each aspect of her personality into one single name.  Here she is the sex-bomb, the independent woman, the doting mother and the loving wife.  Thematically it might tread on familiar ground, but…‘Beyoncé’ is her opus, her ultimate album, her true statement of intent.”

Best Track: Haunted

9. I Break Horses – Chiaroscuro

Why it made the top 10:
It certainly leans towards the darker side of its namesake with its brooding production, but ‘Chiaroscuro’ is equally full of propulsive dance beats that inject real urgency.  Few albums this year have been as evocative, transporting the listener to some electronic vision of heaven and hell – menacing basslines, celestial melodies and alien effects colliding in a musical kaleidoscope of light and dark.

“…there may be plenty of moody electronic music around, but I Break Horses are very good at what they do”

Best Track: Weigh True Words

8. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 (OST)

Why it made the top 10:
It may seem strange for a film soundtrack to be one of the best albums of the year, but this is less a soundtrack and more a companion piece to the film.  You’d be hard-pressed to actually hear these tracks whilst watching.

Yet with New Zealand cool kid Lorde at the helm, it all starts to make sense.  This is essentially a collection of some of the most exciting artists in current pop: from the fizzing electro-pop of CHVRCHES, to a surprisingly celestial offering from Charli XCX, Ariana Grande getting all sexy with Major Lazer, spectral production and soulful vocals from Tinashe, and of course Lorde herself.  There’s even a track from Grace Jones.  The music may only passingly reference the film, but no other album sums up the state of play in 2014 quite like this.

“…these aren't just throwaway singles; the mostly downbeat and gloomy sounds are equally suited to the film and today's charts.  It's a soundtrack as relevant as the film itself.”

Best Track: Kingdom (feat. Simon Le Bon) – Charli XCX

7. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

Why it made the top 10:
Album time indeed.  If 2013 saw a surge of disco tracks in the wake of Daft Punk, then Norwegian DJ/Producer Todd Terje took things a step further with his debut album.  Fusing funky basslines with space-age effects, Latin rhythms and more than a sprinkling of humour, this is a dance album with a tonne of personality.  If tracks like Strandbar and Delorean Dynamite offer up the sort of sci-fi disco you might find in a bar in the forthcoming Star Wars films, then Preben Goes to Acapulco is the TV cop theme tune of the future and Svensk Sås provides a real fusion of Scandinavian and Brazilian flavours.  Inspector Norse ends it all with a big squelchy smile.

“If ‘Random Access Memories’ had been made with a little less chit chat from Giorgio Moroder and a few more Moog synthesisers it might’ve sounded like this.”

Best Track: Delorean Dynamite

6. Jessie Ware – Tough Love

Why it made the top 10:
It’s testament to Ware’s debut ‘Devotion’ that her retro-futuristic, R&B-tinged soul sound still sounds fresh on this follow-up.  There’s been some refinement though, predominantly pushing her vocal to the fore and gearing her sound towards a more mainstream audience.  It results in pop hits like Ed Sheeran duet Say You Love Me alongside more experimental work with top producers like Benzel (Tough Love, Champagne Kisses), Julio Bashmore (Keep On Lying) and Dev Hynes (Want Your Feeling).  Paired with Ware’s songwriting, it makes this album irresistible.

“On [SBTRKT’s] album, Ware was just an unknown featured vocalist but since then she’s flourished into a fully-fledged artist whose debut album ‘Devotion’ was stunning.  Now, with ‘Tough Love’, she’s grown into the popstar she was always meant to be.”

Best Track: Tough Love

5. Jungle – Jungle

Why it made the top 10:
Half a year later and Jungle’s sound is still impossible to define.  Amongst all the psychedelic, funky, hip-hop and soul influences though lies a dance album that’s hugely infectious.  Following nominations in both the BBC’s Sound of 2014 poll and the Mercury Prize, Jungle have smashed into the mainstream with lead single Busy Earnin’, but from the sweltering intensity of The Heat, to the laidback guitars of Crumbler and the surreal bubbling Lemonade Lake, Jungle provided the sound of the summer.

“…their music is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Each track is a rich tapestry of warm layered textures that combine to create something unique, something effortlessly cool.”

Best Track: Busy Earnin’

4. Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds

Why it made the top 10:
Scandinavia has yet again released some of the best music of 2014 and Sweden’s Tove Lo is the undisputed breakout star.  With its songs of searing honesty, her EP ‘Truth Serum’ alone is worthy of note.  Then she followed it up with the full debut (frustratingly still to be released in the UK).  Pairing her raw lyrics with fizzing pop production, the album details the rise and fall of a relationship: from the early days of passionate sex (Talking Body), to the highs of love (Not on Drugs), to the eventual breakdown (Habits (Stay High)).  As with the best Swedish music, Lo juxtaposes melancholia with euphoria in glorious union to create an intelligently written and hugely satisfying pop album. 

“Like a passionate love affair, this debut is fairly short, full of life, and oh so very sweet.”

Best Track: Habits (Stay High)

3. La Roux – Trouble In Paradise

Why it made the top 10:
Five years in the making and Elly Jackson’s follow up to ‘La Roux’ was more than worth the wait.  The pure electro of that debut has been eschewed for a warmer sound that remains as clean and precise as you’d expect, whilst the sophisticated lyrics are sung to playful melodies.  Cruel Sexuality depicts conflicted desire and Sexotheque offers a different slant on cheating, whilst Uptight Downtown opens the album with a confident, funky strut and the 80s stomp of Silent Partner sees Jackson updating her original sound.  The real masterpiece, though, is Let Me Down Gently, on which Jackson encapsulates the pain of a break-up with the year’s best use of silence.  It may be only nine tracks long, but this is a tight, concise album that’s damn close to pop perfection.

“…with less bleeps and bloops and more warmth and human emotion, this is a consistently brilliant and honest pop package that pairs truthfulness with undeniable hooks.”

Best Track: Let Me Down Gently

2. FKA Twigs – LP1

Why it made the top 10:
Don’t be fooled by the generic title; this year FKA Twigs has proven herself to be the most idiosyncratic artist of 2014.  Nobody else has stretched R&B to such experimental limits.  Nobody else has paired music and visuals in such an exciting union.  Nobody else has made dancing with some cloth so damn sexy.

In essence, FKA Twigs is a true artist.  ‘LP1’ is an album that stirs all sorts of emotions: it’s sensual, frightening and sometimes disturbing, whilst her fragile vocals haunt as much as they delight.  To match it all, in her videos she evolves from a china doll, to an alien beauty and an Egyptian goddess, with sometimes shocking intent.  How she didn't win the Mercury Prize is beyond me - she is a human in her own otherworldly, intoxicating soundscape.

“This is the product of an artist with a singular vision, who stands far away from, and above, the crowd.  I could listen for hours.”

Best Track: Two Weeks

1.       Taylor Swift – 1989

Why it made the top 10:
The blank space at the top was made for Swift this year.  When the ubiquitous Shake It Off was first heard in the summer it seemed that she’d gone full on Disney popstar, but with the eventual release of ‘1989’ it was clear she’d lived up to the promise of an 80s inspired pop album.  Pairing her candid lyrics with modern pop production was a stroke of genius; throw in some top songwriting talent for mainstream appeal and a lick of Scandi polish, and it results in an album without a single bad track.  From the nod to her romantic reputation in Blank Space, to the urgently cinematic Out of the Woods and the softly layered romance of This Love, Swift has encapsulated all the best elements of contemporary pop.

2014 was the year Swift went from popstar to phenomenon.  And she didn’t need Spotify’s help to do it.

“…‘1989’ is an evolution, not a revolution.  It’s also the pinnacle of 00s pop, taking all the clichés of 80s music that have influenced current trends and smacking a big Swift stamp across it all to rise above the competition.  It’s clear, then, that she’s the biggest popstar of 2014.  And with good reason.”

Best Track:  Out of the Woods

Honourable mentions:

Lykke Li – I Never Learn
“From start to finish Li is living and breathing this break-up through music and we're with her every step of the way.

Tinashe – Aquarius
“Tinashe's sound might be indebted to some key influences but with an album this polished, she's taken the best bits of Aaliyah (sadly no longer with us), Ciara (seemingly dead career) and Rihanna (lost?) and made them her own.  It's clear that 'Aquarius' really is the dawning of a new star.

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
“At its peak, ‘Ultraviolence’ doesn’t quite hit the sublime high of Video Games, but it captures an artist forever on the edge of a breakdown.  It makes for a strangely beautiful listen that’s disturbing, provocative and sumptuous in all the right ways.”
MØ – No Mythologies To Follow
“…there’s an edgy rebelliousness to her sound and a disregard for convention, varying styles and genres bubbling away in a rich melting pot of creativity.

Unicorn Kid – Brain Wash
Gizzle said:
Erm…somehow this wasn’t reviewed.  However, it’s a super catchy pop-dance chiptune album that nobody bothered to listen to, so now Unicorn Kid is no more.  Quote that.

As for the tracks of the year, here's a handy playlist that covers all your needs:

Friday, 5 December 2014

Broods - Evergreen

After it was released in August in the brother-sister duo’s homeland, debut album ‘Evergreen’ from Broods has quietly been released in the UK this week with next to no fanfare.  It’s a shame: this is an album that absolutely should not fall under your radar.

There’s an obvious comparison with Lorde.  Both artists are from New Zealand, share songwriter Joel Little, and have an intangible sense of teenage cool.  Sonically, their music consists of big beats and deep bass, but where Lorde’s music is stark and percussive, Broods focus on melody and dreamy atmospherics.  The beats are sparse, the synths are as brooding as the duo’s name suggests, and the lyrics ache with teenage melancholy.  And whilst Lorde drifts into punk-rock on occasion, Broods’ edginess comes from the production rather than the lyrics.

Take Bridges and Never Gonna Change, for example.  Both featured on the duo’s previously released self-titled EP, the former pulsing beneath ethereal vocals, the latter a break-up song wrapped up in moody, downbeat production.  This style remains consistent across ‘Evergreen’, on tracks like the melodramatic ballad Killing You with its chorus of “it’s killing me and it’s killing you”.  Later, Medicine slowly and hauntingly unfurls, whilst Four Walls is a typical ballad heightened by its clattering beat and lyrics of teenage angst (“I wanna make you feel how I feel when I’m listening to love songs”).  The duo embrace their youth in their lyrics and pair it with a modern sensibility that’s irresistible.

Whilst they do wallow in misery a little too often, there are plenty of upbeat tracks.  Everytime has a deep, menacing bass and aggressive chorus; the syncopated hand-claps of L.A.F make it the most rhythmically interesting track; Sober drifts into deep house; and the title track is a big soaring anthem that typifies their style.  The album ends with Superstar, a track that’s great in its own right but is a little too obviously influenced by Lorde. 

The best track, though, is opener Mother & Father, also previously released.  It matches the duo’s penchant for melancholy (here a meditation on life on the road) with a lighter electro-pop sensibility, the yearning chorus lyric “I don’t wanna wake up lonely, I don’t wanna just be fine” capturing their uncertain future.  It’s a future that’s bright and, with tracks like this, deserves to be noticed.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Mother & Father
* Everytime
* Never Gonna Change

Listen: 'Evergreen' is available now.