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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

'A Hard Day' (2014) directed by Seong-hoon Kim [LFF 2014]

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A homicide detective is having a very bad day. Internal affairs are ransacking his desk, his daughter is demanding chocolate cake, he’s been pulled over for a DUI and he’s got a body stashed in his boot. And he’s on his way to his mother’s funeral! And his damn phone won’t stop ringing! And his shoelaces have snapped!

No wonder he’s frazzled.

Detective Ko Gun-soo’s (Lee Sun Gyun) litany of disaster begins with a hit and run. To his credit, his first instinct is to report it, but just as he’s dialling the emergency services his his daughter calls with demands for cake. He’s in shock and mildly freaked out by the sight of a cop car heading his way. Then he makes the first of several bad decisions; dragging the bloody body off the road, wrapping it in a sleeping bag and bundling it into the trunk of his car. Now he has to get rid of it – but how? Well, his mother is being buried today and her coffin is awfully roomy…


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'The Face of an Angel' (2014) directed by Michael Winterbottom [LFF 2014]

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Face of an Angel sets its sights on the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, still an open wound in the public consciousness. We instinctively crave digestible narratives of heroes, villains and victims: characters that these events refuse to provide. Villains become victims, heroes become villains and, after years of analysis, evidence and testimony, we’re no closer to knowing what really happened in that Perugia flat than we were the day after it happened. 

Winterbottom chooses to approach the case through meta-narrative.  Our lead is Thomas (Daniel Brühl), an analogue for himself who recognizes the fertile soil of a high profile murder in Siena and explores how he could transform it into worthwhile cinema. Early on the character receives some advice that’s essentially the film’s manifesto: “If you’re going to make a movie, make it a fiction. You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.


Monday, October 20, 2014

'Kill Me Three Times' (2014) directed by Kriv Stenders

Monday, October 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Even now, after Simon Pegg has conclusively 'made it', the sight of him on the big screen feels a bit mischievous. For many he'll always be Tim from Spaced, the sight of him conjuring up happy memories of late night Channel 4 and feeling like you're part of a secret gang for knowing about the show.  This vague feeling of possessiveness towards him can swing both ways: on one hand his screen presence comes preloaded with an enormous amount of audience goodwill, on the other when he's in a bad film you feel a bit let down.

Kill Me Three Times isn't a bad film. But it's not very either.  Pegg plays Charlie Wolf, hitman extraordinaire.  He dresses in black, wears a handlebar moustache and drives a muscle car crammed with high powered weaponry.  Wolf is essentially a cartoon assassin; his style influenced by European spy comics and pulp cinema.  He's also completely amoral; willing to take any dirty job as long as there's a hefty payday at the end of it.

As Wolf puts it; "I don't die.  I thrive!", which'd be an upbeat philosophy if he wasn't at that very moment dying on the sunny West Australian coast.  The question is, how did he get there.  The answer proves to be a complex web of murder, adultery, blackmail, idiocy, insurance fraud and, most interestingly, dental record falsification. Traversing this knot of a plot are stone-cold psycho Lucy (Teresa Palmer), her incompetent, gambling addict dentist husband Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), the scummily violent bar owner Jack (Callan Mulvey), his adulterous wife Alic (Alice Braga) and hunky but dim mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth).

Like a snowball growing in size as it tumbles down a mountain the body count quickly racks up.  In fact, by the time the snowball crashes into the base it's stained crimson red and has legs, fingers and bits of ragged scalp poking from the top of it. This is a filmic universe where the Grim Reaper has finely honed senses of comic timing and dramatic irony.  That, in combination with a cast of self-important scheming bunglers puts us firmly in wannabe-Coen brothers territory; the plot playing out like an antipodean spin on Fargo.

If you're going to stick closely to an established tone, you could pick far worse directors to ape than the Coens, but Kill Me Three Times feels like a bargain basement DVD ripoff of them.  The main problems are with the lacklustre writing; each character has a one-note personality (bumbling, violent, scheming, protective etc) that gets hammered on relentlessly until the character pops it (sometimes by actually being hammered on).

Looking a touch Zardoz there.
This isn't helped by dialogue that's serviceable at best.  Characters state their intentions and then carry them out, leaving precious little room for performative nuance.  Teresa Palmer does a decent job of combining slightly shopworn beauty with homicidal ambition and makes an effective bully of Sullivan Stapleton's moronic dentist.  There's a few weak links; but Alice Braga can be forgiven for being stuck in a part that gives her zero interesting qualities and Luke Hemsworth cements his status as a lesser Hemsworth (how many more damn Hemsworths are there anyway?!).

There's a similarly slack approach to the visuals; though the scenery is often quite beautiful it's shot in a perfunctory way.  The general tactic is to impress with a postcard perfect establishing shot, then revert to a bog-standard framing technique that drains these otherwise rather scenic locations of any verve.  The interiors fare a bit worse, overlit and with a whiff of cheap soap opera to them.

The one thing that makes this experience even vaguely worthwhile is Pegg, obviously relishing playing an out and out bastard.  He plays Wolf as a normal guy who's watched a few too many movies; pretending (even to himself) that he's really a sinister, ultra-competent omniscient badass while actually being a bit dim and extremely lucky.  At the very least Pegg is having fun and it's difficult to begrudge him choosing to spend two weeks in a sunny Australian paradise playing a comedy hitman.

That aside there's very little to recommend about Kill Me Three Times.  It doesn't ever tip over into terribleness but coasts along in a mediocre, passionless gear until the credits finally roll.  There are worse ways you could spend your time, but there's also far better ones too.


'A Blast' (2014) directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas [LFF 2014]

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Syllas Tzoumerkas’ A Blast tracks the fallout of the Greek economic collapse on an average middle class family. Or at least I think it does. You see, A Blast has been shoved through a wood chipper and what comes out is an enigmatic nonlinear narrative that confuses much more than it intrigues. 

Our focus is the fragmented and chaotic wife/daughter/mother Maria (Angeliki Papoulia), a woman standing squarely in the eye of an economic storm. Maria is smart, beautiful and ambitious, with high hopes and genuine prospects. We first meet her the day she’s been accepted to study law in Athens, and the family hums with jubilation. Her elderly father hugs her, her mother gives her an envelope of cash as a present and she bickers pleasantly with her younger sister. Underlying all this is a passionate relationship with the hunky Yannis (Vassilis Doganis), with the two indulging in lengthy bouts of sweaty sex. This is contrasted with herky-jerky cuts that reveal some indeterminate future where she’s on the verge of complete breakdown. 


Friday, October 17, 2014

'The Hotel' at 47/49 Tanner Street, 16th October 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I love immersive theatre.  It grants you agency within a dramatic world, allowing you to manipulate fiction, as well as letting stage designers run wild and create a new reality.  From Punchdrunk's epic The Drowned Man to Lucien Bourjeily's terrifying 60 Minutes in Damascus, immersive theatre has ranked among some of my favourite nights out.  So naturally I was eagerly anticipating The Hotel, billed as "a new immersive experience unlike any other."

Immersive my foot!  I've been in paddling pools more immersive than this.  What it actually is is two fifty minute long plays with a bit of connective tissue in between. Rather than experiencing an immersive world you'll spend the vast majority of your time parked in a seat quietly watching conventional theatre.

The conceit of the night is that we're guests in a hotel.  We hang about in a lobby area for a short while, then we're ushered into one of two rooms to watch a one act play. I'm slightly hamstrung in this review by the fact that the programme asks that the details of these shows remain secret for future guests.  But while I didn't like the show very much, I'll respect their wishes and be as vague as possible.

The first room I entered contained a romantic domestic drama by a 19th century European playwright.  Bluntly: it sucked.  The actors delivered the wordy lines as if it was the first time they'd seen the script, less reacting to the other performer and more waiting for their cue to speak.  It's an awful feeling when you realise almost instantly that this not only isn't very good, it's not going to improve either.  For excruciating minute after excruciating minute it shuffled painfully towards a damp squib emotional climax.  Worse, we could hear the muffled sounds of what sounded like a much more interesting play through the walls.

That turned out to be the second of the night's plays, a somewhat livelier piece by a 16th century playwright.  After the drudgery of the first room my expectations weren't exactly sky high, but thankfully it was a huge improvement.  It still wasn't exactly stunning theatre, but at least this one had some interesting lighting, energetic staging and striking performances. Particularly eye-catching was the demonic physicality of John Askew, stalking the stage like a human spider, the sharp lighting catching the angles of his evocative features.  Fun as this was to watch (at one point a woman was being strangled on top of my foot!) it only barely scratched the surface of the source material.  Still, I'll take what I can get.

Given the presence of two titans of theatre in the rooms it feels a bit odd to say that the absolute highlight was the light comedy taking place in between the shows. Stanley Eldridge as the hotel manager holds an improvised management seminar.  He's got a stuffy Partridgian air to him as he blithely takes us through buzzwords while fighting constant interruptions.  With his quick and hilarious improvisational skills I'd have much preferred to spend the night with him, but alas this part appears to be there to kill time while the audience are shuttled between rooms.

The idea of a hotel with a different play taking place in each room is theoretically promising. If the plays had been somehow thematically connected or allowed the audience to move between each as they please maybe - maybe - this would have been worthy.  As it is it's just a double bill of theatre, one of which is okay and the other outright awful.  If you're expecting anything remotely like The Drowned Man, You Me Bum Bum Train or Hotel Medea you're going to be very disappointed.  Frankly, advertising this as immersive theatre is borderline dishonest.

The Hotel is at 47/49 Tanner Street until 19th October 2014.  Tickets here.

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