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Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Here Lies Love' at the National Theatre, 17th October 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Surprise surprise the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim is absolutely fantastic. It's not as if iconic musicians haven't come unstuck in heading towards musical theatre before, but let's face it, if anyone is going to make a goddamn amazing musical about the corrupting influence of materialism, it's David Byrne (with Fatboy Slim more than capable of supplying some cool beats).

Here Lies Love is a musical biography of Imelda Marcos, widow of Phillippine President Ferdinand Marco.  Beginning as a 'simple country girl' sleeping on boxes in the garages of Tacloban she claws her way towards opulence on the back of her rmarriage.  From its beginnings as a populist movement led by a war hero their regime gradually slides towards authoritarian tyranny, with Imelda effectively ruling the country in the 1980s. Eventually the situation becomes untenable, concluding with the peaceful 'People Power Revolution' of 1986 that forced the Marcoses to flee the country by helicopter.  Following her departure the poor of Manila ransack the palace, famously discovering her gargantuan shoe collection.

Them's the facts, so how do they work as a musical?  At the core of Byrne's vision is the idea of experiencing history in a nightclub.  The audience are everywhere; gazing down at events from high above the stage or standing around a transformable stage. The cast move in and around us, at times hugging us and incorporating us into their choreography.  This constant motion gives the show a unique energy; seducing us with the extravagance of the Marcos lifestyle.

Musically this is firmly, fiercely and religiously pop inclined.  The show has rightly been described as a 'poperetta', stuffed full of gossamer light synth beats, booty-shaking disco bass and catchy choruses that all but beg to be sung along to (and we do).  Obvious highlights are the recurring title track, Here Lies Love (which gets its title from what Imelda wants engraved on her tomb), We Are The People of the Philippines and the climactic Why Don't You Love Me?  All the songs are covered in Byrne's distinctive lyrical fingerprints - it's all too easy to hear his voice in this music, no matter who's singing them.

There's a risk that translating the life of Imelda Marcos into super fun happy disco times would trivialise her crimes against the people of Manila.  After all, underneath all the shoes, fur coats, haute couture and partying lies torture, despotism and corruption.  Here Lies Love is even broadly sympathetic to Imelda, though the triumphant climax involves her being unceremoniously booted from the country, her panicked lack of comprehension renders her more pathetic than outright evil.

Instead, Here Lies Love shows how the understandable desire to escape poverty becomes monstrous when taken to its logical conclusion.  The young Imelda is practically a Disney heroine in her misery, singing pleasant little ballads about how she's the flower in a ruined world, she's practically Cinderella.  Imelda gets her fairytale ending about a third of the way through the play, winning the heart of not only her dashing Prince Charming but of the people.  Here Lies Love is about the consequences of living out your fantasy life.

Money is the root of all evil, and once the addiction of materialism has gotten its hooks into this poor country girl she begins a metamorphosis that's the equal of anything Kafka or Cronenberg put out.  This is as much a visual transformation as it is a narrative one; after beginning the show in a simple, white peasant dress with her hair loosely around her shoulders she begins to become angular and insectoid.  Her hair tightens into a hard beehive, her outfits harden into a chitinous carapace of iridescent green with wing-like fins - even her features seem to grow harsher under the high-contrast stage lighting.  

We can almost see the humanity draining from Imelda as the show goes on, the innocent peasant systematically replaced by the legendary 'steel butterfly'.  This steady transformation is contrasted with the unchanging innocence of Estrella, her childhood friend.  The unsettling conclusion is that there's nothing unique or special about Imelda the person; rather that she threw herself into a machine that warps people into monsters.

So Here Lies Love functions as a broadside against the precise kind of fun we're having so much of.  When we jiggle our asses to Fatboy Slim's eminently danceable beats, become drunk on the elaborate stagecraft and marvel at the astonishing costumes we're proving ourselves susceptible to the same temptations that created this supreme villainess of shoes.

Of course this is very much having your cake and eating it.  Here Lies Love is one of the most joyous musical experiences I've had all year.  And therein lies a paradox.  Audiences skip and boogie out of the stage door, pumped up for more partying and humming the show's eminently hummable tunes - on their own individualistic paths to awfulness.  It's a sensation that leaves you giddy and queasy in equal measure.  

Be sure to experience it for yourself.

'The Man in the Orange Jacket' (2014) directed by Aik Karapetian [LFF 2014]

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Apparently, The Man in the Orange Jacket is Latvia’s first ever horror film. The country may be late to the party, but boy oh boy they’ve come out swinging. Clocking in at a fat-free 71 minutes, this nearly dialogue-free psychological slasher goes for the throat early and often, treading into territory so pitch-black that it caused a couple of walkouts at the London Film Festival. What atrocity was it that disgusted these people so much? Well, let’s see…

Within the first couple of minutes of the film we’ve seen a brutal double murder. A capitalist fatcat boss is sat in his plush bedroom, explaining to his trophy wife how laying off so many workers has stressed him out. She reassures him that a sunny holiday in Italy will wash those worries away. Then she screams. There’s a man sitting in the room, and he’s wearing an orange jacket.

He wordlessly approaches the terrified couple and pulls out a hammer. *THWACK!* The rich man’s mouth flaps like a fish out of water as he collapses onto the silk sheets, blood gently pooling behind his head. The orange jacketed man then stands up and listens for the pitter-patter of feet on the marble floors. He pursues her through the house and just as she thinks she’s out of danger… *THWACK!*


Friday, October 24, 2014

'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night' (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour [LFF 2014]

Friday, October 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"A vampire in a hijab is such a provocative image that I’m surprised it’s never been used before. This mashup of predatory, sexually charged vampire imagery and the hijab’s minimizing of a woman’s personality, body and mobility makes for a cracking incongruity that director Ana Lily Amirpour exploits to the max, turning a clumsy mass of heavy black cloth into her vampire antiheroine’s bat-wings.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, located in a bizarre future Iran. The streets are largely devoid of life and the inhabitants all housebound drug addicts or walled-in rich. The camera pans around the empty city, casually showing us a river bed full of rotting corpses. What the hell has gone wrong in this world?"


'The Hunters Grimm' by Teatro Vivo, 22nd October 2014

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Deptford High Street doesn't exactly scream 'fairytale'.  Half of it  is a building site for some shiny new development and half is mouldy old Victorian brickwork that miraculously dodged the Luftwaffe bombs.  Neither chromed enough to house braying city traders nor run-down enough to draw in gentrifying creatives, the street rumbles along in a tangle of transitory cash n' carries and mobile phone shops intermingled with the occasional splotch of boho trendiness.  But now there's something new in town; these darkened streets populated by sinister old crones, giggling princesses and tormented lovers.

The Hunters Grimm, a new production by Teatro Viva, adds a sparkle to the place. Beginning in the Deptford Lounge library, we're introduced to the brothers Grimm, one of whom, Wilhelm, is racked with manic misery that every single story he encounters ends unhappily.  After all, "Happily ever after" is a relatively recent concept, before Disney came along classical children's stories would be as likely to end in great gushing gouts of blood as they would in smooches and song.

And so the audience is tasked with curing Wilhelm's depression by hunting out a happy story on the streets of Deptford.  Clad in fetching purple bowties our team of 'Fearless Philologists' heads out into the cool October night to try and spot likely candidates for a good yarn. This quest takes up the rest of the night, the audience gently guided around by larger than life characters like The Prince of Deptford, the snoozy Gunter, the animal Musicians of Bremen and Rapunzel's, sad, blind suitor

As soon as we begin the streets gain a fantastical shine.  We're herded towards a mysterious old woman in a green velvet cloak, she moans that she's been left off the guest list to see the new royal baby.  Straightaway we're sucked into Teatro Vivo's slightly off-kilter world, which allows us a peek beyond the veil.  She explains her situation, leads us across the road then, in a flash, turns and transforms from kindly woman into malevolent witch, vowing to poison the baby.  It's a startling transformation and a fantastic performance from a woman who I later learn is 92!

From this promising start we tumble deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, winding down the streets, through shops, down back alleys and into bars.  God only knows how you go about organising something like this, though the fried chicken vendors of Deptford are impressively tolerant of strangely dressed weirdos yelling "Have you seen Hansel and Gretel?!" through their door.

Performing in public also adds a ton of interesting little wrinkles.  Passers by crane their necks in confusion as they come across eccentric, costumed people acting in very peculiar ways.  The performers even try their best to get them involved, cheekily quizzing them about bizarre subjects.  Similarly, simply being out on the streets adds some spice to the drama; epic romance becoming more touching when it concludes next to a pile of trash lit by the halogen glow of a street light.

Dragging these fantastical characters off the page and onto the streets modernises them in ways that recalls some of my favourite fiction. This London street/fairytale combination most reminded me of Neil Gaiman's book/TV series Neverwhere, about a London Below, where'The Angel Islington hobnobs with Old Bailey.  The attraction of Neverwhere is exploring the soft point where fiction and reality intersect, a playground that The Hunters Grimm similarly frolics in.

Underlying all that is a simple, exhilarating sense of adventure and discovery.  We never know where we're going to go next or who we're going to meet.  So when, for example, we're ushered out the back door of a deli, through a fire exit and emerge in a back alley there's a genuine sense of excitement.  This unpredictability pays off big time, I don't want to spoil the sights you'll see, but they range from disturbing to the wondrous.

I don't think The Hunters Grimm is for everyone.  If you'd rather park yourself in a comfy seat and passively consume a show then constant activity and participatory nature the show could cause you to have a nervous night.  On the other hand, if you have a burning lust for adventure and a willingness to think on your feet you'll find few other things in London as satisfying.

The Hunters Grimm begins at the Deptford Lounge, 7.30pm, Wednesday 22 October – Saturday 8 November.  Tickets are £12 (£10 conc)s available here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Parallel I-IV' (2014) directed by Harun Farocki [LFF 2014]

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It'd be a shame if the London Film Festival were entirely pretty actors in expensive clothes prancing around on a drizzly Leicester Square red carpet.  Sometimes you want to dig a little deeper. That's where 70 year old Czech born German experimental documentarians come in. Screened as part of the Experimenta strand, the late Harun Farocki's Parallel I-IV is a series of short documentaries that explore the politics, imagery and narrative limitations of videogames.

I enjoy the odd videogame but I have no illusions as to their worth.  Maybe one day they will evolve into a worthwhile activity, but as it stands they're glorified Skinner boxes designed to dole out doses of emotion.  The most powerful illusion that a videogame creates, the barometer by which we measure their quality, is the creation of a false sense of accomplishment (popularly known as 'gameplay').  Whether it's becoming a champion race car driver, winning the world cup or becoming the top crime boss in a city, what videogames ultimately simulate best is success.

In this regard the best videogames act as opiates, granting the player a temporary tingle of fake happiness that quickly fades, needing to be supplemented by another fix.  And then another, ad infinitum.  There's a reasonable argument that other media offer the same thing; the adrenaline rush of a good action movie or the shiver down the spine when those star-crossed lovers finally smooch.  But whilst other media are often able to make you more intelligent and give you new perspectives on the world, videogames tend to make you dumber through a seductive narrative of individual empowerment.  

With that in mind, the key to the Parallel series success is exploring videogames from an outsider's perspective.  Harun Farocki, having no emotional attachment to the medium, comes at it with a clean mind, free from preconceptions as to how games work or what conditions of 'good play' are.  What interests him is the idea of poking at the edges of virtual worlds, observing behavioural algorithms and examining methods of representing reality.  

An aspect of games that's often overlooked is the accepted boundaries of behaviour for a player.  Experienced players know the ropes, for example, they instinctively grasp the boundaries of a level and capabilities of their avatar and, so, over the course of normal play, won't try to squeeze through barriers that demarcate where the game world 'ends'.  

In footage from L.A. Noire we follow a policeman around an impressively rendered 1940s Los Angeles, the only obviously unrealistic thing the impassable roadblocks preventing the player from leaving the city.  A seasoned player wouldn't give these a second thought, yet Farocki drives his virtual cop car directly into them over and over again.  We see a similar process in Red Dead Redemption, a cowboy meanders his way across an epic prairie, only to plunge to his death when he crosses a certain, unmarked point on the map.  Open world games sell themselves on player freedom, yet Farocki exposes that freedom as strictly defined.

Farocki shows us repeated clips the player behaving in ways that expose the limits of the game.  The most striking are his manipulations of NPC behaviour.  In Mafia 2 he leads the player character towards an old woman who's smoking a cigarette, standing directly in front of her and blankly staring.  In the course of normal gameplay we'd hear a short voice clip from her telling us to get out of her way and we'd move on.  In Parallels she begins cycling through repetitive voiceclips and animations, smoking an infinite cigarette.  There's a performative aspect to videogames that often goes overlooked; the player encouraged not to shatter the illusion of the gameworld by playing their role as the designer expects. 

Examples like these expose the ideological limitations of the medium, which arise from the basic need for the player to be at the centre of events. This means the vast majority of games present a solipsist world in which the player is God (even games with thousands of simultaneous players tailor the experience of each player to tell them they're 'the chosen one').  Players thus become immortal and nearly omniscient - everything in the gameworld designed to entertain them and them alone.

Given that hardcore gamers immerse themselves for endless hours in worlds where they are the centre of attention is it any wonder that their identities become warped?  In the ongoing #Gamergate farrago, self-styled 'gamers' have reacted with astonished horror at their pastime being exposed to cultural analysis, reading criticism of their entertainment products as criticism of themselves. They are trapped in a confused loop: "The feminist says the game is sexist, which means that I am sexist, but I know I am not sexist, therefore the game is not sexist. If the game is not sexist then the criticism is false, therefore the feminist is a liar therefore she is a whore therefore fuck u whore i will rape u so hard."

Reactions like #Gamergate show us the extreme consequences of videogames' operant conditioning, the player's personality becoming accustomed to an endless cycle of masturbatory, egocentric wish fulfilment that's easy to achieve in the virtual world but impossible in reality.  Farocki's film scratches at the surface of this, but it only takes the tiniest effort to peek beyond the veil and expose videogames as a medium with an inherently limited scope.

Consider this: after 35 years of cinema we had the formal experimentation of Eisenstein and the narrative and technical genius of Welles' Citizen Kane.  After 35 years of videogames we are still largely mired in corridors full of people to shoot with guns and B-Movie narratives. Graphics have approached photorealism but we haven't progressed beyond Space Invaders with its waves of slowly approaching targets to eliminate.  Perhaps the medium will eventually take a great leap forward (games like Minecraft present promising, if embryonic, possibilities), but from a 2014 perspective that leap feels a long way away.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom' (2014) directed by Jacob Cheung [LFF 2014]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Within the first ten minutes of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, you realize that you’re going to have to seriously recalibrate your cheese tolerance levels. An adaptation of a Chinese novel, the film quickly introduces an apparently endless parade of bearded, angry men in elaborate armour who smirk at the camera like 1950’s serial villains. The rest of the movie is devoted to a super-saccharine, vaseline-on-the-lens love story that comes with a strong whiff of Twilight.

Before I summarize the plot, I should confess that I didn’t understand most of it. The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a pretty well known story in China, being a smash hit novel first and having been adapted to cinema multiple times. So, Jacob Cheung’s film assumes you’re going to know who’s who before it even begins, a tactic that might save on exposition for Chinese audiences but spells bewilderment for everyone else.


'Fury' (2014) directed by David Ayer [LFF 2014]

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I should hate a film where a rough n' tumble gang of American soldiers mow down a faceless horde of baddies.  But Fury's baddies are Nazis - fuck those guys.   Nazis stand alongside zombies and killer robots as the guilt-free massacre of choice; you can have your hero mow down near-infinite numbers of them in casual bloodlust and still maintain audience sympathy. David Ayer's Fury tests this theory to breaking point, the film wading hip deep through tattered, bloody SS uniforms and bullet-punctured Swastikas.

The titular Fury is a beaten-up, battle-scarred Sherman tank full of beaten-up, battle-scarred men: Sergeant 'Wardaddy' (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Peña), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal).  Set in April 1945, the film shows us the final Allied push into Germany. Victory is all but assured at this point, but pockets of desperate Nazi resistance remain.  So the 2nd Armored Division is tasked with liberating town after town in anticipation of delivering the final blow on the streets of Berlin.

It's grimly miserable work, the remaining Nazi soldiers either suicidal fanatics or child conscripts, the civilians cowed into submission after years of war and the countryside ruinous and muddy.  Our window into this world is Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a US Army typist who through an administrative error has been assigned duty inside Fury. Norman's boyish face looks positively virginal next to the existing crew, who look made out of worn-out shoe leather.  They mock his naivety, hate his innate pacifism and resent his inexperience endangering them.  So Wardaddy decides to bust this kid's cherry, the film chronicling the transformation of Norman, typist into Machine, bloodsoaked warrior.

In Fury, Ayer elevates war to religious calling.  The soldiers, cocooned within the safety of their tank are painted as crusaders, devoted to enacting violence upon their enemies. Spiritual ecstasy is achieved via blasting high caliber rounds through Nazi flesh, the hitherto numbed characters springing to energised life and yelling "DIE YOU NAZI FUCKS!!!". Within this cloistered order, the tank is cathedral, Wardaddy is high priest with 'Bible' as his gunner. The innocent Norman is an initiate to this order, only truly accepted once he's been baptised in blood and rechristened 'Machine'.

It's perhaps not surprising then that one of the closing images is of the tank at the dead centre of a cruciform surrounded by hundreds of blown-apart Nazi corpses.  The image of a war machine on the cross, sacrificed to absolve us of our sins is a pretty damn heavy symbol to throw our way - but what the hell does it mean?

Ayer, a former military man himself, is exploring the distinctions between the 'Golden Generation' that came through the depression and fought World War II and the modern first world - and finding us lacking.  It's notable that Norman, the audience viewpoint, is a mild-mannered typist with no experience of real hardship.  He is us; sat behind our computers tapping away online, tasting war through videogames and action movies.

Fury venerates the Golden Generation, placing them within an amped-up nightmare war that even actual surviving veterans point out is a bit too intense.  Fury's argument is that when push comes to shove we need to relinquish kindness and transform ourselves into brutal executioners, reaching deep within ourselves to unlock our killer instinct.  

With Brad Pitt as a character that takes inordinate pleasure from killing Nazis, comparisons have inevitably been made to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.  A more worthwhile point of comparison is Basterds' film-within-a-film, Stolz der Nation, a faux-Nazi propaganda film where a heroic sniper makes a last stand against hordes of faceless Allied troops.  In Basterds, this film satirises the audience's bloodlust for dead Nazis - and it structurally, visually and tonally echoes Fury.

So where does that leave Fury? A Christological propaganda film that deifies soldiers and killing and encourages us to emulate them?  That's not good!  Also a little worrying is Ayer's technical excellence; the battle scenes are an overwhelming experience with pinpoint perfect editing, sound design and score.  It batters down your critical faculties, emotionally involving you in sadistic satisfaction at launching volleys of bullets into warm Nazi flesh.  

The simple fact that we're vicariously enjoying massacring fascists soothes a little bit - after all if anyone's got it coming it's these bastards.  But a film taking this much salacious pleasure in mass murder, no matter who the enemy, slips into military pornography.  I'm not sure what to make of Fury.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, but the more I think about it, the more that enjoyment freaks me out.  


Fury is released today.

Thanks to Vargo of Cinema Discusso for the religious observations

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