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Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs' at the Tate Modern, 18th April 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Uh-oh.  I don't get it.  This dawns on me as I stand in a sea of carefully bearded and expensively handbagged Tate Modern visitors, smack dab in the middle of one of the most critically acclaimed exhibitions of the year, surrounded by countless priceless works by one of the universally acknowledged masters of 20th century art and... I feel nothing except a vague sense of samey boredom.  Is it just me?  It's gotta be me.  Right?

The Cut-Outs showcases what Matisse was up to for the last seventeen years of his life. In his old age he himself unable to paint with the skill, speed and precision he once possessed. But though the flesh was weak the mind still burned, and so Matisse embarked on an entirely new discipline; cut-outs.  He'd used this method in the past to visualise arrangements when planning paintings, but he soon began to realise that this could be an entirely new method of expression.  

So, chunky scissors in aged hand, he commenced a one man war against reams of paper, slicing, cutting and pasting them into shapes, layering colours upon each other and creating a huge number of works that combine an attractively primitive childishness with a master's eye for composition, colour balance and reducing objects to their essential forms. 

Polynesia, the sea (1946)
There's a few videos throughout this exhibition that show Matisse at work on these pieces. He works his scissors like a top class butcher, trimming away extraneous paper, working in one smooth motion to reveal a shape that comes out so fully formed it's as if he's freeing it from the paper rather than merely creating it.  As a placard within the exhibition explains, it's by seeing these videos that you understand that this creation is a three-dimensional process, the paper flopping and rolling over the old man's hands as he works at it.

An old master discovering, learning and mastering a new form of creation in his final years is an undeniably cheery narrative. It's difficult not to feel a tingle of happiness for him as you read of his happiness with the works, explaining that he's realising ideas and visions that he's been unable to before.  This optimistic mood buoys up an exhibition that, with its explosions of colour and vibrant organic shapes, couldn't be better suited for a big summer exhibition.

But I didn't like it very much.  It almost feels rude to say that.  Who the hell I am to come wandering into the Tate Modern and start dissing Matisse... Matisse for god's sake!  I've always held that art should make me feel something - and trying understanding why I feel a certain way is the basis of every article I write; whether it makes me laugh, makes me sad, makes me curious, even infuriating me or making me bored as hell.  I just want some kind of emotional response, a foothold through which I can better understand the work, the world and myself.

The Sheaf (1953)
But I didn't feel much of anything when I was looking at any of this  They look like something you'd see on the side of a mug in a middle-class housewares shop, or perhaps stuck on the wall of a mid range hotel lobby.  I guess this isn't Matisse's fault, the reason I make the link is because middle-class housewares and hotel lobbies have appropriated and homogenised this style because a) it's pretty and colourful and b) it's so safely abstract that it can't possibly offend anyone.  It's this middle-of-the-road-ness that leapt out at me, reminding me of joyless corporate art whose aim is simply to throw a splodge of colour onto a grey office wall.

I'm sure there are people who will thrill at the sight of the hundredth piece of decoupaged seaweed but aside from a basic admiration for the artist in being so productive in his later years, this straightforward focus on colour and shape just doesn't do anything for me. Intellectually I can understand these geometric interplays and composition as some kind of 'essence of art', a sublimation of why humans appreciate visual imagery at all.  But even with that in mind I'm not particularly enjoying or appreciating this stuff at all.

The Snail (1953)

Perhaps I just don't have the eye or the education.  My tastes skew towards aggressive, forceful poppiness; art that boots down the front door of the mind and chucks a hand grenade in.  In comparison this is detached prettiness, nothing much to communicate other than what I'm looking it exists and it's somewhat pleasing to the eye.

I feel like such a dick saying all that about Matisse but there you have it.  As I put together the bones of this review while walking about the exhibition I seriously debated just pretending that I'd enjoyed it.  It'd be far easier to mouth a bunch of platitudes about the joy of seeing shapes interplaying with each other and the vibrancy of colour and whatnot, -but it'd have all been a big fat lie.  The simple truth is that all this apparent virtuosity did bugger all for me and if I'd have paid £18 to get in I'd have felt disappointed and short-changed. 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at the Tate Modern 17th April - 7th September 2014.  Adults £18 / Concs £16.

Thanks to Chris Wilcox for taking me!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

'In This House: A Family Breakdown' at the Space Arts Centre, 12th April 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Going to see a play about a murder trial is a bit of a busman's holiday for me.  I've spent an inordinate amount of time in courtrooms up and down the country watching murderers balefully staring from the dock as the relatives of their victim tearfully give their testimony or tweed-wearing experts make lofty pronouncements on their state of mind.  A juicy murder trial with lots of interesting wrinkles is such a fascinating thing to get involved in that I'm surprised the viewing galleries are so often empty; you can go down to the Old Bailey and watch theatre that'll beat the socks off anything in the West End - and it's all free!

A murder is at the centre of Natalie Songer's In This House.  Lucy Mason, an unassuming teenage girl, has butchered her whole family over dinner. The press have dubbed her "the Angel of Death" and we come in at the beginning of her trial.  The prosecution and defence counsel are duelling comperes squaring off against each other; introducing the case with lascivious joy, imploring the audience to act as jury and to decide whether she's a cold-hearted, calculating killer or a poor waif driven inexorably towards carnage.

As counsel cross-examine the witnesses their testimony is dramatised, and so we gradually piece together the facts about what happened.  Throughout this process our sympathies slip and slide, one moment the evidence leans one way, the next another - the story shifting subtly depending on who's doing the telling.

This is a clever (and accurate) way of dramatising what goes on during a trial. Even the recent past has a frustrating tendency to become fuzzy and vague when placed under the legal microscope.  Time and space splinter into a thousand shards and the court's job is to reassemble them - their goal is an objective truth, but it's an impossible one to achieve.  In The House understands this, cleverly using Brechtian technique to highlight how the ways a courtroom works.

With this in mind the play sticks like glue to the principles of Epic theatre.  The cast remains on stage at all times, waiting patiently on chairs at either side of the stage for their cues. They change costumes in front of us, gossiping out of character before the action begins and waving placards during the action imploring us to applaud the appearance of a new witness. On more straightforward level the counsel frequently remind us that we're not watching a trial, that all this is made up, and that any legal nitpickers in the audience should button it and remember they're not in an actual court room.

Songer's play takes a warped delight in rubbing the audience's noses in the artifice, daring us to care about what we're watching. Of course, given how effective these scenes are played it's impossible for us not to get involved, the audience collectively bubbling with righteous indignation as we witness the horrors that Lucy's family visit upon her.  These people are so horrible they venture into Roald Dahl territory; a warped gaggle of grotesques with few likeable qualities.  That said, supremely hateful though they are, I can personally attest that they're far from unrealistic.

Particular credit has to go to Simon Kirk as the domineering, sexually screwed up father. He vibrates with rage, his lip cruelly curling as he dismembers his daughter's dignity. The character is a tightly wound bundle of red-faced, extroverted stupidity - if The Daily Mail were to be embodied in a human being you wouldn't be too far off the mark. Kirk makes his character so despicable so fast that the audience quickly comes to the silent consensus that maybe it's not so bad that this man dies a horrible death.  

The flipside of the coin is Grace Chilton as the angelic, innocent killer. With a simple white dress as her costume and a relaxed, open demeanour she comes across as girlish.  Just as we instantly hate the father, we immediately warm to Lucy.  She's the tortured, humiliated artist, an innocent victim of a cruel world who merely did what she had to do to survive, right? But underneath Lucy's pleasant, open demeanour Chilton layers something not quite right; it's slippery and difficult to pin down, but there's something definitely wrong here - and it's a sign of a nuanced performance that it takes us nearly the entire play to work out what it might be.

This dialogue between the past and present, with memories springing to life in front of us eventually feels less like an impartial reenactment and more like an idealised version of events.  Songer guides us intellectually and emotionally down a precise path she wants us to take; possessing the skill of making us feel exactly what she wants us to feel.  She shares this skill with expert legal counsel, whose success depends on being able to influence a jury one way or the other. In the final moments of the play we recognise just how much manipulation has been going on; echoing out from the centre. The fictional characters have been manipulated; the audience has been manipulated and we realise just how much the application of justice relies on this subtle manipulation.

As theatrical statement it's a success.  As a play it's not perfect though - there's the odd clunky line, the final act turns on a cliched psychological twist and, though the characters are at pains to underline that this is not a 'real' trial and court procedure does not apply, misused terminology and off phrasing rankles the legal nerd in me.  Despite that, as someone who's witnessed an awful lot of trials, In This House really does capture the mood and tone of a court room, as piece after piece of a grisly puzzle gradually slots into place.  It's a quietly great piece of theatre: engaging from start to finish, smartly put together and well worth a trip down to Docklands to check it out.

In This House: A Family Breakdown is at the Space Arts Centre: 8th – 19th April, 7:30pm £14/£10. Tickets here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pat Dam Smyth at St Pancras Old Church, 11th April 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The dead of Old St Pancras are restless.  Hundreds of years ago they laid their heads down for the last time.  Or so they thought.  Then along came tomorrow,  it made demands for space, efficiency and time.  The Victorians were boldly marching towards a  industrial future and the girders of St Pancras station began to loom out of a foggy sky.  In its way lay seven thousand sleeping Londoners, accreted Georgian, Stuart, Tudor and Elizabethan dead. They had to be gotten rid of and despite a public outcry they were quickly and unceremoniously exhumed from the churchyard and haphazardly heaved into a gaping pit under the railway line. In a bizarre twist the person charged with organising this mess was a young Thomas Hardy. He found being a dustman of corpses naturally rather traumatic, later writing:

"O passenger, pray list and catch 
          Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
          Of wrenched memorial stones!
"We late-lamented, resting here, 
          Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
          'I know not which I am!'

The Levelled Churchyard - Thomas Hardy

Hemmed in by cars on one side and trains on the other, Old St Pancras cuts a lonely, yet  still dignified figure.  Legend has it that the Romans built a temple here, then the Normans on top of that, then the Tudors on top them, then Victorians and finally, after the Luftwaffe had had their way with London post-war architects added the finishing touches.  Today jagged cracks run across the plaster of walls bristling with important (and bearded) dead men. I suppose after it's been through so much any building will pick up a few scars - so with an eye on raising a bit of dough to fix this up they're hosting concerts.

And that's where I come in. Last night this holy place became even more holy, the nave not ringing with theology, but with an acoustic boom of folk and ramshackle rock and roll. On the bill were Mick O' Regan, Mark Harrison, Winspear & William and, headlining, Pat Dam Smyth.

Mick O'Regan
There's something fundamentally reassuring about a church full to the rafters with music. Walking into the room like this and seeing a lone man clutching an acoustic guitar, plaintively singing tender songs to an attentive crowd feels genuinely spiritual.  This was Mick O'Regan, and if you looked up 'folk singer' in the dictionary I'm pretty sure you'd find a picture of him.  Acoustic guitar, check. Harmonica holder, check. Blue jeans, white shirt and black waistcoat, check.  Song about Woody Guthrie, check.  I guess if you're going to do something do it right, and anyway, he cuts an elegant man-out-of-time figure up on stage.

Mark Harrison
Next is Mark Harrison. His best song is a short and pointed number about a man named Greenwood LeFlore.  He was a mixed race Choctaw in the mid 19th century, and having risen to a position of authority within his tribe, worked hard to negotiate a settlement of land for his people.  Displaying considerable talent in realpolitik he recognised that fighting against European settlement was like trying to push back the tide.  So, with this half European heritage and Western education he negotiated a decent, if pragmatic, agreement.  With this under his belt he went on to become a US Senator - a sort of race relations success story right?  Well after that he went on to become a slave owner in Mississippi.  The moral? History is mixed up and complicated and life rarely conforms to a narrative.  Harrison spins this tale well, and I appreciate a bit of a history lesson in my music.

Next up are Winspear & William, though they're soon joined by a flautist.  After gentle acoustic numbers it's a relief to hear something with a bit of boom to it.  The two sing in close, rising harmonies that perfectly reverberate around the room.  Sat at the front I felt the air in my lungs quivering in time. Props have to go to the guy on the sound desk for making this all sound so good, and, I guess to the groups of various architects through time who designed the room. 

Winspear & William
I was having a pretty good time by this point. I guess sitting in a church listening to gentle acoustic folk isn't exactly the craziest thing I could be doing on a Friday night, but every note did its bit to wash away the grub and grime of the working week. But things were about to kicked up to a whole new level.  I've never seen Pat Dam Smyth before so I didn't know what to expect. They're a band dislocated from time, one as fun to listen to in the 1960s as they'd be if they played in the 2060s.  When you go to a lot of gigs it's easy to take for granted how hard playing an instrument and performing is.  But here it was at the forefront of my mind; the band coming across less as rock stars and more as expert craftsman - taking the same pride in their carefully constructed work as a master carpenter would in a perfect chair.

Pat Dam Smyth
The undisputed highlight of the whole night for me was their cover of Willow's Song from The Wicker Man.  My knee-jerk reaction was to read this as a miniature act of subversion - singing a pagan song smack dab in the middle of a church.  But I quickly softened - whatever atrocities are committed in the name of God and Church it's difficult to see them in the warmly, crumbling homeliness of Old St Pancras.  The song, a paean to female sexuality, felt bizarrely appropriate here - the rural imagery of the song having far more in common with greenery and old stones than with the electric buzz outside the churchyard gates.   Anyway, the building itself seemed to give consent, chiming out its churchbell as the clock struck 11, the architecture working itself gently into the composition.  With the building perspiring with history and the graveless ghosts of old London sitting patiently in the aisle there was a centred feeling that all was right with the world.

Anyway, I absolutely adore The Wicker Man, so this was the cherry on a delicious cake for me. And at just £5 entry and £3 for beers a cheap cake too.   If the other gigs in this series are as good as this I may well come back.

Friday, April 11, 2014

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' (2014) directed by Marc Webb

Friday, April 11, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Just when I thought I was sick of superhero movies... I'd figured The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was going to be another in an endless parade of identikit blockbusters by numbers. All the signs were there; The Amazing Spider-Man was a largely bland experience with brief moments of enjoyment; Marc Webb was a relatively inexperienced director the studio could push around a bit and, worst of all, there's queasy behind-the-scenes knowledge that this new Spider-Man series is less artistic endeavour and more contractual obligation so Sony can keep the character rights. These aren't necessarily portents of certain doom, but let's just say it doesn't exactly build anticipation.

But probably 10 minutes into this sequel I was having the time of my life.  This is superhero action as it should be, a whirlwind of primary colours and intense kineticity. We've all seen Spider-Man swing around New York before, but Webb has captured the joy of the character's motion in a way that Raimi only hinted at.  The character moves with the grace, personality and precision of a Pixar character - the kind of action sequences that you want to pick through frame by frame to catch every tiny gag and movement.  With some great 3D effects they quickly bypasse your critical faculties and go straight for the adrenal gland.

There are several of these astonishingly well-constructed action sequences within the film, mixtures of long CG tracking shots, close-ups and crackling effects.  Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man - clad in a beautifully straightforward rendition of his comicbook costume - is never anything less than enjoyable to look at.  But the film's most remarkable achievement is Electro.  Played by Jaime Foxx as a low-rent pop-art Dr Manhattan it quickly transpires that his superpower isn't electricity. It's dubstep.

Drop the bass!
The first time he unleashes his powers there's a colossal bass drop and a grinding 'wubwubwub' that rattles the cinema (seriously, see this in a screen with impressive sound system).  This gives the film the perfect opportunity to transform every action sequence with him into it into a warped musical number.  The score and sound design fuse together, turning the fights into cut-up dance tracks.  This concept reaches its apotheosis late in the film in a gobsmacking fight in a power station where the characters striking pillars produces synth melodies.  Then the whole arena turns into a gigantic graphic equaliser!  

After the lacklustre Lizard-fighting action sequences of the first film I figured Marc Webb just didn't have this in him.  But here, with Electro pulsating to the beat like a walking glow-stick, curling tendrils of blue neon enveloping the characters and Spider-Man whipping through it all, I felt a sense of tripped out cinematic exhilaration that I'd last felt in the awesome climactic race of Speed Racer and the climactic battles of Pacific Rim. These are beautiful, imaginative action sequences that make this glut of superhero films worthwhile.

This is stunning in 3D motion on a big screen.
The action is so good that it's unfortunate that it's surrounded by drama that, while competently constructed, isn't exactly a shining example of plotting.  I admire simplicity in cinema, but there's a rather annoying tendency in both this and it's prequel to devolve into legacy-based storytelling with future sequels in mind.  Easily the low points of the film are when it expects us to care about the mystery of what Peter Parker's Dad was up to before he died, a story strand that's dull and peculiarly Harry Potterish.

It's not that these sequences are poorly put together, but they certainly drag on a bit. There's also the classic superhero pitfall of juggling a villain too many. Dane DeHaan is great as Harry Osborne, but his transformation into the Green Goblin doesn't just give him claws and jagged teeth, it turnis him from a charismatic, sympathetic antagonist into a 2D cartoon badguy.  His stuff isn't exactly awful per se, but it feels a bit redundant after the fascinating Electro sequences.

But for every duff bit of pacing and plotting the film more than makes up for it in sheer gumption.  Webb has pinpointed precisely the right tone for a Spider-Man movie - able to mix up cartoonish slapstick and ludicrous superscience with genuine emotion and character development.  There's a refreshingly gleeful disregard for 'realism' - I particularly love that Electro gets his superpowers simply by falling into a tank of electric eels and exploding.  In fact, with the whiff of camp, the neon colour palette and lots of enjoyably hammy over-acting (and Electro initially being pretty much the Riddler from Batman Forever), Webb begins to very faintly recall the 1990s Batman films of Joel Schumacher.

Fortunately Electro doesn't make quite as many crappy puns as Mr Freeze did.
Did you hear that faint wail over the horizon?  That was the sound of a thousand fanboys wailing in torment.  But this lighthearted style works for Spider-Man, presenting us with a sunny, optimistic, comedic universe that's light years from the po-faced and glib Marvel Studios films. There's a warm sense of community to New York, with lovely sequences of a a city in love with a Spider-Man to whom the description "friendly, neighbourhood" has never applied more.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn't a perfect summer blockbuster but it's damn close.  Some trimming of extraneous characters and excision of irrelevant plotlines and you'd have something genuinely amazing.  As it stands, this is a seriously impressive and thrilling superhero film that throws the po-faced greyness of Marvel's recent The Winter Soldier into sharp relief.  Highly recommended.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on general release in the UK from 16 April and in the US from 2nd May (ouch!)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cabaret Roulette: 'Guilty Pleasures' at Madame JoJos, 9th April 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I like Soho.  I like the piss-addled alleys.  I like the bitchy queens hanging around outside the Admiral Duncan.  I like Gosh! Comics. I like the neon soaked sex shops.  I like Maoz Falafel. And I especially like Madame JoJos.  As London fattens itself on the blood of Russian oligarchs and glittering glass erections thrust out of the 14th century plague pits it's reassuring to know that the heart of the city is all about tits, cocks and cum.  Perversely it's the sleaze that's most honest these days, 200 years of libido baked into the filthy paving stones.

This means that sitting underground in Madame JoJos watching cabaret feels imperceptibly 'right'.  You're participating (however subtly) in a human chain of debauchery stretching back to the Georgian era.  As you sit surrounded by plush red velvet and gilt, art deco ornamentation you can practically sense the ghosts of gangsters, beatniks and showgirls swanning around you. Tonight the theme is 'guilty pleasures' and honestly, enjoying all this sticky, louche glamour is one of mine. 

Cabaret Roulette is a regular fixture at JoJos: it's mission to bring democracy to vaudeville. The idea is that the audience chooses the theme for upcoming nights, suggesting them on their Facebook page and then picking one based on how much applause the concept gets in the club.  Once it's been decided eight performers have two months to develop an act based on the theme.  On the bill tonight are a nicely varied mixture of magic, music, and dance - all leavened with a decent dose of satire.

In charge of this whole shebang is Eva Von Schnippish, in character as a slightly warped randy Marlene Dietrich type.  She makes the whole thing look effortless, which of course means that she's really good at her job. There's a cosy familiarity to this kind of patter, material that basically hearkens back to end-of-the-pier shows at then-glitzy seaside resorts and has its roots in the mythical Weimar cabaret.  

Jeu Jeu La Foille
An early highlight is Jeu Jeu La Foille.  She brings on stage a bag-for-life from the Richmond branch of Whole Foods, an item that neatly encompasses a wide range of emotions: bourgeois foodie superiority, economic healthiness coupled with big box corporate hippyism.  To the opening bars of Meat is Murder she pulls a Burger King Whopper out, guilt and pleasure fighting for control.  Soon after there's a Gaga-esque meat dress (though disappointingly not actually made of meat), and the flourishing of a pork pie and bag of scratchings.  Bleeding hunks of murdered meat and eroticism is a potent combination, and even though this is largely pro-meat it's at minimum promising to see the act of consuming flesh as a 'guilty' pleasure and not just a straightforward one.

After some crazy/sexy jazz contortionism by the amazing Lily Raptor we move onto Merlesque.  It's difficult to pin down exactly what's so erotically magnetic about a pair of murderous ukelele wielding half woman half fish girls - I began to suspect it was excavating some long-buried pre-adolescent yearnings for Ariel from The Little Mermaid.  These suspicions were confirmed when they launched into a twisted cover of Part of My World mixed up with references to cut-throat capitalism and Karl Marx.  Be still my beating heart!

Bigchief Randomchaos
Up next was puke-drinking and self-harm from Bigchief Randomchaos.  This is a kind of gonzo clown act pitched somewhere between Rob Zombie and the Jim Rose Circus.  The whole thing is shot through with freewheeling anarchism, skating on the thin ice between entertainment and disgust. Randomchaos is, if nothing else, charismatic - able to pinpoint the exact point between charm and obnoxiousness.  As he lowers his bare ass onto a tray covered in drawing pins, all while assuring us that enjoying this would be his guilty pleasure if he felt guilty about it. As he stands up the pins tinkle to the floor and his ass crack burns an angry red. We'll take his word for that this is fun.

Alfie Ordinary
Following this was an intricate ballad about big cocks and Justin Bieber from Anna Lou Larkin and some booze-raddled magic by Miss Jones.  After them was Alfie Ordinary, playing melancholy piano-led covers of Gina G's Ooh Ahh.. Just a Little Bit and Carly Rae Jepson's Call Me Maybe.  With a persona pitched just the right side of drag, Alfie embodies the spirit of cabaret.  This is a self-deprecating confessional - a bitingly morose romantic world of unrequited passions. He injects his pop with impossible longing - transforming mindless burbling lyrics into something honest and true.

Peggy De Lune
Last on was Peggy De Lune performing a punk-tinged striptease to Die Antwoord's Cookie Thumper.  She began in pink puffery, a squeaky caricature bimbo queen.  More child than woman she fluffed around the stage burbling Betty Boopish drivel.  But as soon as that killer bass beat kicked in all bets were off.  Cookie Thumper, if you're not familiar with the song, is a machine-gun rap-rant by mean-ass mentalist Yolandi Vi$$er over pounding techno beats. The song has an electric rhythm running right through it, plugged right into De Lune's nervous system.  The song gets more and more aggressively bananas as it goes on, as did the dance - culminating in a topless whirl of nipples and Capri-sun. It was a perfect capper to the evening - I'm not even sure what could have followed her. 

The only thing that could have made this a more perfect Soho night was if I'd gotten mugged, puked down my shirt and woken up covered in glitter in a wheelie bin - but it was a worknight after all. Maybe on the weekend.

The next Cabaret Roulette is on 14th May - the theme: VILLAINY.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'The Raid 2' (2014) directed by Gareth Evans

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Raid was a fat-free film that hit the ground running and didn't look back.  A cop is stuck in a building with a bunch of gangsters and has to beat them all up to escape. The efficient brutality was a perfect match for the pared down narrative, every stomped on head and busted rib taking us a step further through the plot.  It still stands out as a distillation of everything that makes an action film great; and I figured it'd been put together with strict adherence to the philosophy that the plots of these kinds of movies are merely a vehicle to get to the next action scene.

I figured wrong, because where The Raid is fast-paced and muscular, The Raid 2 is flabby, unfocussed and (surprisingly for a film with this much ass-kicking) often kinda dull.  This is a damn shame, practically all of the things that made the first film so great are still present; the kinetic camerawork; technically stunning action sequences; the sense of restrained style leavened with dark humour - but all this is hamstrung by the insistence that we should care about a load of overwrought, cliched gangster rubbish.

Where The Raid was simple and straightforward, this sequel is convoluted and confusing.  Rama (Iko Uwais) is taking orders from a secret police corruption unit so he attacks a politician's son so he can be placed into prison to befriend a gangster's son so he can infiltrate a crime gang to... I guess take the gang down? Think that last sentence was poorly constructed?  You should see the rest of the plot!  What remains is a tangle of poorly defined loyalties, double-crosses and scheming that honestly doesn't make a huge amount of sense.   Sadly this is all a bit of a mess. And it's all stretched over two and a half hours. 

Thankfully when the fists start flying this sequel becomes a worthy companion to the original. Evans can direct the hell out of a fight, the camera whip-panning through the air as if synchronised to the movements of the participants.  Iko Uwais is the Mozart of handing dudes their asses, sure he's a bit limited when he's not punching a guy repeatedly in the mush, but who cares?  The stunt team are similarly brilliant, throwing themselves around with reckless abandon and making every blow viscerally count. An early mass brawl in a muddy prison yard is a stunning achievement in action cinema.  Evans' lens greedily drinking in ten or twenty individual tiny fight scenes, moving frenetically from beating to the next, a sense of omniscient timing allowing him to capture myriad tiny moments of violence.

The real stand-out is a cross-cut sequence showing two assassins moving through different environments. They're the marvellously named Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, and they metallicly bonk and bash a load of poor mooks into submission.  The sound design and score here is marvellous, the brittle jingle-jangle of the baseball bat on the pavement and the *thonk-SNAP* as bones break under hammer blows all in synchronisation with the score.  There's more than a touch of Edgar Wright to Evans' directorial style, a light-hearted pop-inflected playfulness that works as a great contrast to the gore and blood.

Despite having no lines (or personality) Hammer Girl is actually pretty great.
But you can have too much of a good thing and by the climax of the film I found myself more than punched out.  By way of illustration, this film has an awful lot of violent throat trauma in it - no throat goes unripped, with big gouts of arterial blood spraying everywhere at the slightest provocation. The 'correct' audience reaction to someone's throat being ripped out by the hero is a queasy cocktail of astonishment, disgust and exhilaration - it's brutal but it's exciting.  But by the end of the film you're accustomed to it - to the point where you see horrible things and take them for granted.  Feeling nothing at all when confronted with gory imagery just makes you feel like a psychopath.  Audience desensitisation to violence isn't a good thing and this inexorably leads to detachment and boredom.

Further blows are struck by the meandering run-time and unfocussed narrative, which rob the film of urgency and drain any emotional engagement.  In the previous film we cared about Rama on a basic level; he just wanted to see his wife and kids again.  Here his (and everyone else's) motivations are blurred, with the result that we don't particularly care who wins these fights. This means that while the action isn't really more extreme than The Raid, the tone is all wrong and it pretty much spoils the whole film.

It's a pity, because with disciplined screenwriting and some judicious editing this has all the ingredients to be a worthy follow-up.  But Evans, presumably wanting to take advantage of his new directorial freedom and a bigger budget, has bitten off more than he can chew.  The Raid 2 contains a hell of a lot of great stuff, but unfortunately this franchise has already become a victim of its own success - a textbook case of sequel bloat.


The Raid 2 is on general release from April 11th.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

'Locke' (2013) directed by Steven Knight

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The prospect of spending an entire film trapped inside a car with a miserable builder as he drives from Birmingham to Croydon isn't exactly the most tantalising of propositions.  But that's what Locke offers us: one man and one location, the only action to speak of coming down the end of a telephone line.  This could be a new definition of cinematic boredom.  But it's not.  Locke is amazing.

In place of scenery and locations, Locke has Tom Hardy.  This turns out to be a more than acceptable trade, Hardy putting in one of the most extraordinary performances I've seen in a very long time. He plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager who's due to supervise a record breaking pour of concrete at 5am the next day. As far as concrete goes this is a very big deal, roads are being closed and hundreds of trucks are due to converge on his site for a process that we quickly realise is absolutely crucial to the success of the entire project. It's crunch time for Ivan Locke.

Or it would be if he wasn't speeding in the opposite direction down the M6. Prior to this, Ivan Locke was the model of reliability - a methodical, disciplined, trustworthy man who's the exact kind of person you'd want running a multimillion pound construction job.  Everything about Locke screams permanence and precision; from his measured diction to his expensive, high tech German car.  A key piece of overt symbolism is his habit of leaving solid rocky concrete footprints whenever he returns from work, his wife having to chip them off the kitchen floor.

But tonight this paragon of care and thoughtfulness is being put through life's mangle. One of the things I most enjoyed about Locke was slowly discovering exactly why this ordered man's life has degenerated into chaos, so I'm not going to spoil the over-arching plot. But, like a Greek tragedy, Locke's strict personal discipline inexorably drives him towards misery, every decision he makes perfectly reasonable, yet each one sending him spiralling further and further down life's plughole.

"One flaw in the foundation and the entire building will collapse" just about sums up the message of the film.  This resonates throughout an extraordinarily tightly structured movie. In literal terms Locke is referring to the building project he's working on, explaining to his hapless assistant Donal that everything needs to proceed absolutely perfectly or cracks will appear and the entire edifice will tumble down. Locke himself has a flaw, an uncharacteristic moment of weakness that threatens to bring his life crashing down around him.

It's quietly amazing how much we learn about this character over just 85 minutes, Knight's meticulous script rapidly outlining his motivations, fears and ambitions - managing (almost in cinematic shorthand) to justify these extremely bizarre decisions.  Aside from the phone conversations, the only other person Locke speaks to is his dead father.  It's here, alone in the car, that he reveals the depth of his frustrations with life, desperate not to follow in the footsteps of an absent, useless father.  We soon realise that every aspect of Locke's life is a reaction against his Dad, to become everything that he's wasn't.  Now, as if being sucked into a genetic black-hole he finds himself, despite his best efforts, transforming into everything he hates.

All this is told through a career best performance from Tom Hardy.  This is an actor who's become known for hyper-masculine aggression in films; playing unhinged muscled colossii like Bane, Bronson or Bondurant.  But here,in tight confines of his car there's an inescapable vulnerability to him.  The car becomes a prison cell, the constant phonecalls the voices of his inquisitors, the character tortured by his memories and ethical code. There's definite echoes of Dreyer's 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc - both Hardy and Maria Falconetti's faces becoming the field on which morality and ethics do battle.

Knight and his cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis, squeeze every ounce of visual flavour from the austere surroundings.  The motorway outside is a blurred tangle of fuzzy orange blips, punctuated by road works and the flash and wail of sirens.  The interior of the car is always in tight focus, but the outside world has become a chaotic mess. Visually it looks as if we're seeing the outside world through teary eyes, and this visual extension of the character's internal despair goes an awful long way to lifting this beyond a mere experiment in cinema.

The close attention to visual detail is ultimately why Locke works so well as a film.  It's arguable that the script could have been translated to television, the stage, or even a radio play and remained effective.  But there's a sense of crucial kinetic momentum here that wouldn't translate to stage or radio, and the sense of claustrophobia and time passing that would be lost on a smaller screen.  

For all it's audacious cinematic minimalism, Locke doesn't make huge demands on its audience.  It's not boring in the slightest, it openly explains its themes and, crucially, the situation and dialogue is utterly believable.  All Knight asks his audience to bring to the table is empathy; the willingness to place yourself in someone else's shoes and understand why people make decisions that at first glance appear bizarre.  The key to it all are the final shots of the film: the camera pulling back to reveal countless other cars on the road, each one containing a person just like us wrapped up in their own intimate, dramatic and exciting stories.  Steven Knight has some balls putting together a film this experimental, but with the crucial component of Hardy's outstanding performance, he has created something truly special.


Locke is released on April 18th.

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