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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

St Vincent at The Cambridge Junction, 19th August 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Gotta make way for the homo superior”.  Amidst a din of clattering guitars, maniacal whoops and digital noise, Bowie's words ran laps around my head.  Why?  Because I'm pretty damn sure Annie Clark is the next stage in human evolution.  On stage she mixes up slithery, chaotic punk rock androgyny with dance moves like an android struggling to break free of its programming – all underscored by guitar virtuosity that's as gobsmacking as it is effortless.

As 2014 began I was already pretty appreciative of St Vincent.  Their 2011 album Strange Mercy had rolled around in rotation for a couple of weeks upon release and their 2012 David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant had tickled all my tastes.  Then I heard their latest release, the eponymous St Vincent.  Hot-shit-god-damn what an album!  Shot through with haunting, cryptic vocals that combine the domestic, the technological and weirdly erotic (“Oh what an ordinary day.  Take out the garbage, masturbate.”) I was hooked.  

Then at Glastonbury I finally saw them.  They were up against stiff competition, Jon Hopkins, Disclosure, Jack White and the outstandingly fun Dolly Parton, but emerged by an inch as the best thing I saw all weekend.  After a horde of fey young men sitting around mournfully plucking at acoustic guitars and warbling about their feelings, St Vincent functioned as musical electro-shock therapy.  As Clarke dove from the stage and thrashed around on the muddy floor, fingers a-blur on the fretboard, fizzling with manic alien energy I fell a tiny bit in love.

The day I got back from the festival I got online to see where she was playing in the UK next.  Cambridge?  A little far from my usual stomping grounds but fine, whatever.  It was worth the trip.  It would have been worth going to Mars.  At times I thought I was on Mars. Annie Clarke occupies the stage with supreme confidence – her every motion radiating style, every idiosyncratic lyric spilling out of her like she's carved a hole in her head and let her thoughts run rampant.

In person she's some fucked up hybrid of all my loves - like someone's stuffed my favourite musicians into the telepods from Cronenberg's The Fly - the woozy electro lyricism of Bjork with the guitar skills of Prince and the eccentricity and self-assured weirdness of Kate Bush.  Wearing a dress covered in sequinned eyes and brace-toothed mouths (all bleeding) and moving in a way that suggests she's communicating secret codes it's difficult to take my eyes from her.  Standing pressed against the front row centre I fool myself into thinking she's often staring right at me, making me feel like a deer caught in a hunter's spotlight.  

My highlights are all songs from her most recent album.  Digital Witness is elegant and precise, a circus stomp pah-rump paean to the blurred lines between fleshy reality and the electronic world.  To hear Bring Me Your Loves live is to tumble down a mountain in a skip full of broken synthesisers, her guitar sounding like an old modem screeching down a phone line, the song punctuated with killer, crunchy-as-hell riffs.  Best is Huey Newton with its hallucinatory painkiller lyrics.  Midway through there's a bass drop so fierce that Skrillex stares on with envious eyes, and Clarke launches into a guttural stream of consciousness about “fatherless features, you motherless creatures” and “the pop and the hiss in the city of misfits”.  The fluids in my body are fizzling with bass, strobes are threatening an early epileptic end and once again, she seems to be singing these words right at me.

Being stage front for a show like this is like chewing through a high voltage cable.  My musical tastes tend towards the energetic and pounding, but here even the slower, more emotional songs reek of majesty.  Temporarily shorn of her guitar, Clarke mounts the giant pink steps at the rear of the stage and poses like a renaissance painting. She's illuminated in bright primary colours, singing softly through Prince Johnny and I Prefer Your Love – delivering them like torch songs from the year 2200.  

So yeah – I had a pretty goddamn great time.  St Vincent feel tailored to me in particular, though given the rapturous reception the band got from Cambridge I suspect everyone feels this sensation, just as I'm sure they all felt like Clarke was singing directly at them too.  The climax of the concert is the epic Your Lips Are Red – a Class A freakout of clattering, punished guitars and a band going bonkers.  Clarke climbs into the audience and starts grabbing people's camera, snapping pictures and grinning  madly.

And with that she was gone.  St Vincent have had a stratospheric rise in my estimations this year; landing right on the list of bands that I will pull out all the stops to see; regardless of price, location of time.  Right now Annie Clarke is at the top of her game; she's Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon, she's Dylan at Newport Folk, she's Hillary on Everest. Go and see her, dammit.

First two pictures courtesy of Matt Thorpe (, last crap one courtesy of my cameraphone.

Monday, August 18, 2014

'Night Moves' (2013) directed by Kelly Reichardt

Monday, August 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The best films make you feel.  Whether it's exhilaration as a grimacing hero explodes a helicopter, romantic squishiness as star-crossed lovers finally realise they're perfect for each other or tear-streaked, sniffle-nosed whimpering as someone sacrifices themselves for the greater good.  Night Moves certainly induces feelings, but it's a sensation a little rarer in cinema: guilt.  Gnawing away at the foundations of your soul, the background hum that informs everything you do, the deep sucking queasiness in your belly as you try to come to terms with the consequences of your actions - yeah, that guilt.

Set within the eco-warrior counterculture, Night Moves explores the minds of those who, when confronted by the evidence of man's destruction of the planet, don't stick their heads in the sand and pretend nothing's wrong.  Jesse Eisenberg is Josh, a terse, serious young man who moves with a taut nervousness, as if he's expecting a heavy hand to fall on his shoulder at any moment.  We first meet him jockeying with the slightly more upbeat Dena (Dakota Fanning), a slumming rich girl who's dedicating her trust fund towards the cause.

One of the central problems in environmental activism is that it's extremely difficult to see what palpable effects your efforts are having.  If you spend your entire waking life protesting against CO2 emissions what difference will it make?  The ice caps will keep melting, cars will keep pumping out exhaust and fossil fuels will be being burned worldwide.  Activists can go two ways, throwing their hands up in nihilistic surrender; "fuck humanity, they're a plague and deserve everything they get" or direct action.  Josh picks direct action.

Dakota Fanning as Dena
More specifically he wants to blow up a hydroelectric dam that's screwing up some river systems.  With Dena's money and old comrade Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) handling explosives preparation he masterminds a plan to demolish it via a boat packed full fertiliser.  What follows is a scarily comprehensive and tense guide on how to make a big bomb and blow something up.  But though Josh's plan is carefully planned out, things go a bit wrong...

Reichardt's biggest asset is undoubtedly Mark Eisenberg.  He's become known for performances that radiate intelligence, brittle physicality and deeply internalised conflict. There's shades of The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg in Night Moves, both characters desperate to impose their vision upon those around them, but trapped in passive-aggressiven suppression of his instincts.  He quickly comes into a subdued conflict with Harmon, who (sorta) steals Dena, his (sorta) girlfriend and begins to take over the leadership role in the operation.  Over the course of the film we gradually understand that the destruction of the dam is less to give industry a bloody nose and more a subconscious act to bolster his bruised, vulnerable ego.

This all comes to a head when things go wrong.  We watch with a mixture of sympathy and morbid fascination as Josh frantically tries to square his actions with his desire to be an ecological messiah.  The guilt gradually overtakes him, transforming instinctive neuroticism into straight-up paranoia.  Every car pulling up might be the cops ready to slap some bracelets on him, every wayward glance from his friends seems to read "we know what you've done".  As the film ticks on you can see guilt eating away at him like woodworm consuming a tree, leaving a fragile husk that eventually collapses into dust.

He's surrounded by a desaturated, overcast cinematic world that feels damp and seamy. Everything is slightly grubby and run-down, from the eco-commune Josh lives in to the vaguely creepy caravan his veteran co-conspirator Harmon plots in.  When we reach the woods and the dam the natural world is presented utterly without beauty.

Reichardt's take on the natural world reminds me of Herzog's conception of the "overwhelming indifference of nature".  Though man might have the ego to think he's affecting the world around him, be it through pumping out noxious fumes into the atmosphere or destroying a dam, the natural world couldn't give a toss either way.  This quiet desperation informs every frame, the characters often swallowed up by the drab, muddy world around them.  Though Night Moves is about eco-warriors it doesn't have a preachy ecological message save for that the basic impulse of humans is to destroy and consume - an impulse we realise even when we try to fight against it. Gradually our characters realise this awful truth, and Reichardt gradually dissolves the narrative into splintered, acts of low-key violence and denial.  

Night Moves isn't a fun watch, but it's consistently very very interesting.  When we're not wrapped up in the compellingly realistic psychology interplay between Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard we take a sinister interest in how to build a huge bomb or we simply grip the edges of our seat in appreciation of some wonderfully tense sequences; namely Fanning's purchase of the fertiliser or the midnight journey to the dam.

Vicariously experiencing intense guilt isn't exactly the happiest I've ever been in a cinema, but that I was feeling emotions this keenly proves that Reichardt is doing a hell of a lot right in Night Moves.  


Night Moves is released August 29th

Sunday, August 17, 2014

'The Apple Tree' at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, 15th August 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

At times the theatre scene feels a bit myopic, companies spinning around the same old dramatic and musical standards ad infinitum.  Quality aside, it gets a little tiring when you learn that perennials like Miss Saigon or Uncle Vanya have returned for umpteenth time to London.  All Star Productions recognise this and draw upon the enormous library of the ignored, the unstaged and the forgotten.  These are the orphans of the modern stage, productions floating in eerie dramatic limbo.

The Apple Tree, tonight's production, is a prime example.  It has a good of pedigree, written by the hits factory of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, famous for Fiddler on the Roof.  Originally performed on Broadway in 1966 it ran for 463 performances, so there must be something worthwhile here.  And so, blowing decades of dust from the yellowed songbook, All Star Productions breath life into the old bones.  

This is production is a triptych: the first act a couples comedy based on Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve, the second Frank R. Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger? (a historical love story) and the third a Hollywood reimagining of Cinderella adapted from Jules Feiffer's Passionella.  These very different settings require quick changes and All Star's cast swap roles like they're shuffling a deck of cards. Nicely, nearly all the cast get a moment in the spotlight, so the leading lady in one segment might be a backing dancer in another.  

Catriona Mackenzie and Rafe Watts as Adam and Eve.
But is it any good?  Well that's a bit trickier to pin down.  Awkwardly for critics, there's nothing objectively wrong with anything this cast and crew do.  Crammed into the slightly pokey space above a pub is a real surfeit of talent.  This fresh-faced cast throw themselves onto the stage with aplomb, relishing the chance to really stretch their dramatic muscles in these broadly comic roles.  The small orchestra, led by upbeat looking Musical Director Aaron Clingham, appear to be having a similarly good time, smiling happily at the rear of the stage and consistently note perfect.

With that all locked down, what could possibly be go wrong?  Well some of forgotten, rarely staged productions are rarely staged for a reason.  The opening Adam and Eve segment is a downright gruesome slog through middle-class 1960s humour, reimagining Genesis through the lens of a couples sitcom.  Trapped in the middle of this, Rafe Watts and Catriona Mackenzie frantically man a dramatic defibrillator, putting in downright Herculean efforts to wring laughs from gags so creaky they'd make a dinosaur groan. But it's to no avail - this material is practically prehistoric and doesn't hold up at all in 2014.

This segment runs to about an hour, taking us from creation to Adam's old age.  Biblical scholars tell us he lived to the ripe old age of 930, and believe me I felt every one of those years.  It was with a curl of worry winding around my belly that I realised I might have at least another two hours to go of stuff like this.  Thankfully the following two segments were a) better and b) shorter (though the latter might have influenced the former).

Rosie Glossop and Luke Wilson as Princess Barbara and Captain Sanjar
After the narcosis of Adam and Eve, The Lady or the Tiger? gives the night a big shot in the arm.  Set in a vicious barbarian kingdom, this is based around the conceit that rather than engage in trials they simply present accused criminals with two doors.  Behind one is a ferocious starving tiger, behind the other a comely lass who must be married forthwith. This isn't the most original setting, but the setting allows for tight martial dancing, a lot of yelling and some loud banging, all of which keep my attention. Also helping is a marvellous physical turn by Rosie Glossop as Princess Barbara, taking every conceivable opportunity to strike hilarious hieroglyph poses.

After a short turnaround we're onto the final segment.  This updated Cinderella story is still plagued by dated jokes, though the brevity and dynamic choreography elevates the material into the realms of the genuinely entertaining.  Michaela Cartwright, playing the lead in brushstrokes so broad she may as be using a roller, has fun both as a cheeky cheery cockney chimney sweep and the rather drag-queenish glam starlet Passionella.  This tale rumbles along in a breezily pleasant manner, wrapping up the night in a way that, if not show-stopping, is at least competent.

Daniel Donskoy as the Snake
The undoubted highlight of all three tales was Daniel Donskoy.  He played the Snake in the first, and the narrator of parts two and three.  To put it simply he's straight up marvellous, a magnetic stage presence underscored with a Jaggeresque sexual dynamism and a faintly diabolical demeanour.  Only he truly succeeds in reanimating the material, willing it to life by sheer force of his personality.

The Apple Tree is a production that's probably best left forgotten. The tone is decrepit, the creaky old jokes inducing mild, polite titters rather than big belly laughs and the music okay but unmemorable.  It's a bit of a shame, because the cast and crew have pulled out every stop they can to make this work, but you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear (particularly when the sow has been rotting for 50 years).  

It's not bad per se, but it's definitely not my kind of thing.  A passing thought I had was that my Gran would have enjoyed it - and that's about as good a recommendation as I can give.  

The Apple Tree is at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, Walthomstow until 30 August. Tickets here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

'Alleluia' (2014) directed by Fabrice Du Welz

Friday, August 15, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Bloody hell.  Grinding industrial electronic music blasts over the end credits of Alleluia.  I look around the screening to see a roomful of people exhaling in relief, some grinning at what they'd just been through, some wide-eyed and staring like conscripts returning from a very bad war.  Alleluia is intense.  Alleluia is traumatic.  Alleluia is nauseating. Alleluia is sadistic. Alleluia is downright demented.

Taking inspiration from the real life "the Lonely Hearts Killers", Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck , Welz' film lures us down into a pitch-black cellar, entangling love and murder, romance and sadism.  The centre of the film is the relationship between Gloria (Lola Dueñas) and Michael (Laurent Lucas), who meet over internet dating.  Even before they're together they emanating sinister vibes; the film opens on a shot of morgue-worker Gloria washing a corpse and the first time we meet Michel he's engaged in a quasi-occult masturbatory ceremony designed to get Gloria to "succumb to his charms".

Clearly he's onto something because they immediately get on the right foot, Michel playing the debonair manipulator while Gloria looks on with shy adoration.  The two quickly team up, weaselling their way into lonely women's lives, conning them out of money and murdering them.  Surprisingly it's the mild-mannered Gloria that goes full-bore homicidal, transforming from housewife and mother into bloodthirsty predator, getting sexual joy from crushing windpipes and caving skulls in. 

This dizzying carousel of blood, sweat, tears and cum is shot on grainy handheld camera, with a penchant for tight-close ups on the staring eyes of their shocked victims and the erotic joy on the killer's faces.  Welz' lens roams around this horrible couple, implicating us within their crimes as silent observers.  Structurally the film is divided into four acts; which correspond to four women within the film.  Within this are a series of tonal peaks that allow us a brief respite of domestic safety before descending into blood-soaked carnage.  Disturbingly, we find ourselves anticipating the chaos, looking forward to the quick-cut bravura film-making that accompanies the most brutal scenes.

Like the corpses Gloria and Michel leave in their wake Alleluia is narratively pared down to the bone.  Every inch of fat has been sliced away leaving a 90 minute rollercoaster of a movie that, once it gets going, never eases up.  Bravura moments are a nightmarish sequence where we see the naked killers dancing around a bonfire. The shots are sliced up into a disorientating whirlwind of flames, blurry appendages and screaming, ecstatic faces.  All this to a seriously intense electronic soundtrack that bludgeons us about the head with screeching distorted sonic shards.  It's full on, man.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is an intensely creepy shot of a dull-eyed Gloria standing next to a nude corpse laid out on a kitchen table.  Her gaze bores right through the screen as she breaks into a impromptu song, apparently for our benefit alone.  There's a sickly, tangible 'wrongness' to what we're seeing that turns the stomach green - the scene reminiscent of the gross fuckuppery of Chris Morris' Jam.

Even outside these highlights the film is constantly shot through with careful framing and beautiful lighting.  Highlights are primary-coloured nightclub and cinema sequences at - the characters wallowing in cold electric blue and hellish red light.  These moments stand out a mile compared to the desaturated reality of the rest of the movie, which has a camcorderish home movie quality that makes the violence that much more palpable.

Similarly impressive is the way Welz uses cinematography to tell the story in place of expository dialogue.  In an early scene we see Gloria and Michel in the throes of passion in a darkened room.  Michel's side of the frame is wreathed in pitch darkness while Gloria's still has spots of light illuminating her.  As the two come together they're drawn down into Michel's dark world, the light vanishing from the frame as they furiously rut on the grubby floor.  The handheld style gives a free, loose sensation to the film, making it seem improvised - but the careful framing proves that every frame is carefully calculated to maximise horrible, creepy nausea.

Another arrow in Welz' quiver is devastingly close-ups.  The camera is often tightly locked on Dueñas' face, which we see progressing from romantic innocence to homicidal fury. Dueñas is simply magnificent, her Gloria a genuinely terrifying cinematic creation, reminding me Charlotte Gainsbourg's 'She' in Antichrist.  As she moves in for the kill her eyes roll back in her head like a Great White about to take a chunk out of an unsuspecting diver.  In the opening scenes you assume that arch-manipulator Lucas' Michel is going to be the leading villain, but both actor and character are quickly overshadowed by Dueñas' Gloria, a straight-up tour de force role.

This graphic, amoral  carnage play quickly reminded me of the casual brutality of Rémy Belvaux's monstrous 1992 classic Man Bites Dog.  So it was with no surprise that I later learned the films share a co-writer, Vincent Tavier.  These films are the cinema of a grand guignol; gouts of sticky blood leavened with the blackest of black humour. Be warned, Alleluia is emphatically not a fun watch, it's a nasty, sick little bastard of a film where the innocent are slaughtered while the killers giggle and fuck.  

Alleluia has a black, ichorously Satanic heart but though it's up to its eyeballs in evil it's a goddamn brilliantly constructed film. Perhaps not a great date movie, but perfect fodder for aficionados of extreme cinema, those who crave intense weirdness and perverts of all stripes. My feel-bad hit of the summer.


Alleluia is released  22nd August

Thursday, August 14, 2014

'All Is by My Side' (2014) directed by John Ridley

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A music biopic that's not allowed to use one solitary note of the subject's music is a tricky proposition.  If we're not here for the music, then what are we here for? The musician's sparkling personality and social life?  What fills the gap?  Well, John Ridley's film is turns out to be less about the who and why of Jimi Hendrix and more about the sexual, racial and class politics of the 1960s, with Hendrix the prism through which we view society.  The result is loose, zoned out and languorous, constantly off into odd little explorations of the psychology of swinging London.

André Benjamin's Jimi Hendrix is a frustratingly gnomic centrepiece.  Your usual music biopic protagonist is driven by past tragedy that both accentuates his genius and wrecks his social life, Hendrix just plays guitar beautifully and that's pretty much that. There's a hint of annoyance regarding a broken family, but he's totally absent of any burning internal trauma. In fact he's absent of most things, mumbling his way through the movie while being coaxed towards stardom by a series of well-meaning white women.

First among them is Linda Keith (Imogen Poots).  Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards, spots Hendrix playing in a rubbish band in New York and it is immediately smitten.  She coaxes him towards a solo career by essentially mothering him.  Imbued with upper-class English forthrightness, she behaves like an LSD gobbling Mary Poppins - ordering that Hendrix sit up straight, eat his vegetables and be charismatic on stage.  For all Poots' considerable charm Linda Keith is rather thankless character and, like Hendrix, we quickly grow sick of her.

So it's thankful that once the film reaches London we jettison her in favour of the slightly more interesting Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell).  She's a broadly drawn Northern lass with a Sheffield accent, and a far more interesting person to spend time with than Daddy's girl Linda Keith.  Even so, though Atwell really gives it some welly we still never quite zero in through the haze, as to what is actually going through her head.

Benjamin is great casting.
This loose vagueness is present throughout the entire film.  You could charitably say that Ridley's ambition is to recreate a fuzzy, acid-tinged stoned atmosphere of drugged-out late 60s London.  He plays fast and loose with the editing, demonstrating a willingness to make abrupt cuts in the middle of scenes, give us an unexpected dose of quickfire montage or the exact opposite; allowing conversations to ramble on awkwardly for minute after painful minute.  There's echoes of Antionioni's Blow-Up and Nicholas Roeg's Performance, and by and large Ridley succeeds in recreating a woozy, chilled out mood with sinister notes distantly rumbling in the background.

Underlying all that care is that, unfortunately, this Jimi Hendrix just isn't very interesting. In a heartfelt and obviously carefully judged performance André Benjamin recaptures the tics and body language we've seen in archive footage, but accurate to reality it might be, this Hendrix just isn't particularly fun to be around.  There's a notable scene where he meets Michael X, "the authentic voice of black bitterness" in London.  Hendrix is interrogated as to whether he's merely a novelty act for his predominantly white audience, X pointing out that reviews refer to Hendrix as "wild" and "tribal" and that these adjectives never used for white musicians.

It's a fair point.  Hendrix's response is a mushy-mouthed hippy-dippy ramble about how everyone is one people and the entire world is his audience.  The film unjustly acts like he's won this argument.  Later we hear Poots' character remark that Hendrix can be "annoyingly profound".  This might well be true, but it's something we see precious little of in Ridley's film.

The fashion is also a high point.  Hendrix wears some badass shirts.
The obvious counter-argument to Hendrix not being the most articulate bloke around is that he doesn't communicate with his words, but with his guitar.  Problem is, there's not really that much guitar playing in the film and due to them not having any rights to Hendrix's iconic tunes, what we do hear is largely formless jamming.  That we never hear even a smidge of classics like Voodoo Chile, All Along the Watchtower or Hey Joe genuinely hurts the film. Robbed of the music, it becomes a bit difficult to remember why we should care about Hendrix's story.

This all culminates  in a late scene where Hendrix graphically beats Kathy, now his girlfriend, with a telephone receiver, the film taking it's time to show us the bruises and black eyes he's inflicted.  This violence comes from nowhere and is very out of character for Benjamin's chilled out Hendrix.  Crossing this moral event horizon makes Benjamin's Hendrix rather unpleasant, and the violence poisons the remaining scenes.  It's a tone-deaf inclusion, made even more bizarre by the real life Kathy Etchingham insisting this didn't happen to the extent of considering legal action against the film.

There's a bunch of good stuff in All Is By My Side; Andre Benjamin is great, as is the supporting cast; the fashions of the time are beautifully recreated, the soundtrack is well-picked and there's a conscious effort made to evoke mood through clever editing. Unfortunately without Hendrix's songs the film feels half-formed, and it makes way too many character and tonal missteps to make up for their absence.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What I do When I'm Not Doing This.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Sunday, August 10, 2014

'The Congress' (2013) directed by Ari Folman

Sunday, August 10, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

How on earth do films like this made? The Congress is an aggressively confusing, utterly idiosyncratic cocktail of a thousand different influences in which meaning, motivation and even the bare bones of the plot slip through your fingers like quicksilver.  Using the critically acclaimed Waltz With Bashir as a springboard, Ari Folman has wrung out the contents of his mind onto a the silver screen, ending up with a movie that explores the far reaches of what cinema might become by way of an animator's wet dream.

At first it seems so straightforward.  Robin Wright (Buttercup from The Princess Bride and Jenny from Forrest Gump) plays herself; a middle-aged actor for whom parts have almost entirely dried up.  Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) lays it out to her: she's made too many bad choices, she was dealt a winning hand and bodged it, leaving her over the hill , unemployable, a cinematic liability.  There's only one option available to her; new technology allows the Miramount film studio to completely digitise an actor, scanning every millimeter of them into a computer and recreating them digitally on screen. While she ages in obscurity her digital self will remain forever young, able to be slotted into whatever roles the studio decrees.

The film is no slouch visually in the non-animated bits either.
"20 YEARS LATER".  Act two opens in the year 2033, where a 64 year old Wright attends the Futurological Congress,  introducing new chemical technology allowing people to don animated avatars.  Anyone can become whoever they want to be.  It's here that we transition from humdrum reality to an intense animated world of motion and colour.  The dirt and grime of reality is scrubbed away to leave a primary coloured psychedelia heavily influenced by animation legends like the Fleischer brothers, Gerald Scarfe and Ub Iwerks.

It's at this juncture that the Folman slams his foot down on the accelerator and zooms off into the realm of the bonkers.  Narrative fades away into a chaotic blizzard of references, characters transition from people into walking metaphors and every single frame vibrates with fractal levels of detail.  We feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, initially struggling to map out this Gordian knot of conflicting symbols, imagery and pop culture. Soon you realise your best bet is to relax, let yourself be swept along into a truly beautiful cinematic world that's like few other things I've ever seen in cinema.

Oh yeaaaah.
Visually the closest comparison I can make is to the densely populated, fast-paced cinematic worlds created by Studio 4°C, primarily the wonderful Tekkon Kinkreet and the avant-garde masterpiece Mind Game (a criminally unseen film).  What they and The Congress have in common is a desire to push animation as far as it can go.  After all, with just a few strokes of pencil on paper the animator becomes God, conjuring whole universes into being direct from his imagination.  Why settle for recreating desaturated, gritty dull old reality when you can spin a blanket of skyscrapers that flutter into the air like butterflies, faces that blossom into flowers and jet planes that flap, dovelike, through the sky?

Textually, though the film credits Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (writer of Solaris) with inspiration I was more reminded of the work of Philip K. Dick, particularly the unsettling queasily drug-tinged worlds of Ubik and VALIS.  Part of what makes Dick's science fiction so compelling is the utter divorce from the familiar. In The Congress' future of inhaled experiences, where people change personae like we change t-shirts and where the human form tends to gloopily disintegrate at a moments notice, we feel this typically Dickian disconnection - us understanding the future is as unlikely as a caveman with an iPhone clutched in his hairy fingers figuring out Candy Crush Saga.

Good shit.
That said, in the midst of this beautiful confusion there are ideas that repeat like melodies. Folman uses the prehistory of animation as a vehicle to explore the future of cinema, a future that begins with digital actors and goes from there.  We see a studio executive excitedly proclaiming the end of cinema as we know it, the medium replaced with a kaleidoscope of individual, personal experiences in which we can cast whoever we want.  As if leading by example, Folman casually casts Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Jones, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Jesus Christ and David Bowie (among many, many others). He teases the prospect of casting our girlfriend or boyfriend as the romantic lead in a sweeping epic, or your family in a lighthearted comedy.

He concludes with the idea of pop culture completely superseding reality entirely, masking the cruel realities of life with a consensual hallucination of day-glo beauty powered by limitless imagination.  Most impressively there's no moralising argument that the only acceptable way to experience the 'real world is without blinders, Folman correctly concluding that a topsy-turvy LSD influenced world where everyone can be whoever they want to be is as valid as any other.

My kinda movie.
God only knows how he managed to scrape together the funding for this - though the litany of logos at the end of the credits hints at a Herculean effort in convincing practically every film board in Europe to chip in.  All that hard work has paid off; in a swamp of fast food blockbusters advertising photorealistic HD carnage, The Congress shines as a monument to ambition, creativity, beauty and a bloody-nosed devotion to the ideal of cinema as artistic endeavour.


The Congress is on limited release from 15 August.

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