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Monday, September 1, 2014

'Autobahn' at the King's Head Theatre, 29th August 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In Neil LaBute's Autobahn a car interior becomes torture chamber, confessional booth and psychiatrist's couch.  Divided into seven monologues and conversations, we meet characters in various states of emotional turmoil, trapped within the glass and steel of their cars, whistling down endless highways.  

The only scenery is the skeletonised frontage of a BMW 3 Series.  Scooped up from a junkyard, the car's paint is sloughing away, the headlights scooped out leaving a blank, corpse-like stare.  Sat front-row centre with my nose to the radiator I felt an ominous sensation that the car was bearing down upon me; dusty old bones of steel, chrome and plastic about to reanimate into carburettor-throbbing, tyre screeching, petrol-fuming life.  

The four bolts of lightning set to reanimate this beast are Zoë Swenson-Graham, Sharon Maughan, Tom Slatter and Henry Everett.  They take it in turns to switch characters; driver / passenger; aggressor / victim; silent sphinx / blabbermouth.  LaBute's cast of characters ranges from a self-destructive teenage smackhead, to a psychotic girlfriend from hell right through to a neurotic cuckold and a pair of grossly pathetic paedophiles.  

These are horrible people; venal, self-involved abusers, masochists and the generally deranged.  LaBute spins out his tales with jet-black gallows humour, gradually teasing out the horrible truth behind the situation.  For example; we meet an overly cheery, spectacled man on a roadtrip with a young girl.  At first we assume that she's his daughter, but their dialogue gradually reveals that he's her teacher, he's abducted her from school and he's driving her to a distant forest to sexually abuse her.  

So not exactly "ha-ha" funny.  This is the kind of humour that curls in the pit of your stomach, LaBute poking fun at both the dippy innocence of the child victim, and the mindless small-talk of the paedophile as he engages in fast food small-talk while furtively tucking his boner into his waistband.

Theoretically pitch-dark humour delivered by a gaggle of grotesques should be very much up my street.  Some of my favourite comedy wades neck deep through the extremes of human behaviour; Chris Morris' Blue Jam, Todd Solondz's Happiness or Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer et al.  These comedies shine a lizght into the cellar of the human soul, judging the worst of humanity as pathetic and bizarre - you laugh, but you feel guilty as you do so.  This is what Neil LaBute is going for in Autobahn, but unfortunately he never quite gets there.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and various characters sitting a car for two hours or so rapidly gets a bit dull.  Not helping is that each of the seven vignettes follows roughly the same dramatic structure; layers of an onion gradually being peeled back to reveal the truth. Problem is once you understand this it's not particularly hard to figure out the 'twists' to the scenes way in advance, robbing them of much of their dramatic vitality.

Not helping matters is the dramatic device of having one character deliver a monologue to another, silent character.  At first this feels like a brave move; the opening scene is Swenson-Graham's teenage addict delivering an increasingly abusive tirade to her traumatised, silent mother, played by Maughan.  Shorn of dialogue every facial tic, sideways glance and sip of coffee is pregnant with meaning and significance, a masterclass in subtle, physical acting that beautifully ratchets up the tension.  Then LaBute pulls the same silent character trick over and over again, each time to lesser effect.

Dialogue-wise LaBute works from the same sprawling steam-of-consciousness style that Richard Linklater and his indie ilk mine so well. Words flow like water from the character's mouths, people so desperate to avoid silence that they blather out a constant stream of digressions.  It's from this information soup of information that we have to strain out the meaningful chunks of information - quietly playing detective.  This tactic works gangbusters in the best vignettes (the drug-addict and date-from-hell ones), and largely annoys in the worst (a dull rant about getting a "game system" back from an ex girlfriend).

Somewhat salvaging even the worst segments are the cast, who all demonstrate a chameleonic ability, cycling between personae like they're shuffling a deck of cards.  I was particularly impressed by their tiny shifts in body language, their posture and non-verbal communication going almost as far to establish their characters as what they say. With that in mind, Swenson-Graham is an obvious stand-out, switching from spiky insouciance to goofy psychopathy to virginal victim as effortlessly as putting on a fresh jacket.  Also of note is Henry Everett, who impresses with the quantity rather than the quality of his acting.  He's all bug-eyes, bobbing head, beads of sweat and flailing arms - a student of the school of 'mega-acting'.  The effect is rather like a neverending drum solo at a concert, technically impressive but a tiny bit numbing.

Autobahn is ultimately an experiment in limitations, how much drama can be mined from two people in a car together? The claustrophobic surroundings hint towards a Ballardian atmosphere - showing us humanity imprisoned by it's own poisonous machinery, inexorably speeding upon an endless highway towards a foregone conclusion. It's an interesting experiment, but not a successful one - the weaker segments drag down the better ones and ending the play with two drawn-out, disturbing (and not particularly funny) scenes about the sexual abuse of children displays a weird tone-deafness.  

Not the worst thing LaBute's ever been involved with, but not especially great either.

Friday, August 29, 2014

IMPURITANS // LAUNCH⇪PAD at Trispace Gallery, 28th August 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The sign on the wall read "Performances may contain traces of nudity, violence, strobe effects, limited visibility and bodily fluids."  My kinda night!  Nestled underground in the cellars of the the old Bermondsey biscuit factory, Trispace Gallery is a friendly, snug space with the pleasant bonus of having a charming, chubby pug waddling happily around it. That would turn out to be the cutest thing about an evening that descended into freaky-deaky weirdness pretty damn fast.  Maybe best not to read this article at work.

IMPURITANS is the 2nd LAUNCH⇪PAD event, organised by the lovely people at CLUSTER BOMB [collective].  It's a performance art showcase and flitting around the room are faces both familiar and new, but all determined to kick back against accepted morality and modes of thinking.  What happened was a weirdly erotic cocktail, all winking arseholes, convulsive thrashing and dirt-eating.

Silvereley Allen
Things started charmingly enough, with a couple of songs by Silvereley Allen.  With just a keyboard and her voice, she took us through a few of her own numbers and TV on the Radio cover.  It was decent enough stuff, and Allen's intricate keyboard skills certainly set the crowd all a-flicker.  Her Easier Said Than Done was an obvious highlight, with some neat polyrhythms at play that look tricky as hell to pull off. 

Things took a step towards the extreme from here, with Andre Verissimo leading us into a dimly-lit space at the back and giving us Gut Twilight.  Cloaked in darkness and clad in a fetching aquamarine skirt he instructed us to scream as loud as we could.  We did.  Following this he lay down on the floor and pulled up his skirt to reveal that he'd stuck a doll's head on his cock and balls, which he angled around the room as if it was looking at us.  Then he jabbed a hypodermic needle into his cock and engaged in a bit of the old winking arsehole routine at the audience, before wrapping things up with a light bit of harmonica-scored shadow play.

Andre Verissimo
It's a testament to the audience they took being stared at by the triple-eyed dolls head/anus hybrid entirely in stride.  As for me, while I could appreciate the bizarro genderfucked birth imagery at play in having a baby's head appear from a man's genitalia, all I could think was that I was experiencing a John Waters film in real time (in particular the famous 'singing asshole' scene from Pink Flamingos).  Applying concrete meaning to a sight like this is missing the point a bit, what's best to grip onto is the sensations you feel staring at a sight like this; shock, disgust, confusion and the growing urge to giggle.  

Emma Louvelle
Following this was You are Drunk Frozen Snowflake; by Emma Louvelle.  After having written a message on a large piece of paper she leapt into a wild dance. Her movements are obviously carefully choreographed, yet they look like her muscles are being involuntarily jerked by a sadistic puppetmaster - like on-stage electro-convulsive therapy.  She's all jabbing elbows, whip-crack neck movements and fierce kicks, a grimly determined expression on her face. It's so intense that it crosses into intimidation - and being a tiny bit scared that she's going to shoot this aggression out into the audience is an interesting sensation.

Robert John Foster
Simmering under all this were two durational performances by Robert John Foster and Skew Wiff.  Foster spent the entire night standing motionless in the corner with a lampshade on his head.  Credit where credit's due - doing this for three hours takes a hell of a lot of patience and physical effort.  It was interesting how quickly I began treating him as furniture rather than a person.  I was happily having chats with friends right next to him, constantly forgetting that there was a real person underneath.

Skew Wiff
Skew Wiff's performance TOI (Tale of the Invisible) appeared to be some kind of night-long cathartic expunging of the artist's psychological trauma.  At various times he was dipping his head in a bucket of murky water, discordantly playing an accordion or simply catatonically crouching naked in the corner.  I noticed he'd written "I peed on the floor" on the wall, so I suppose he did that too at some point.  Though it looked interesting  enough, this regression into a primal state of madness stuff isn't really my kettle of fish - always reminding a bit of Brian from Spaced.  Still, this sort of thing works nicely enough as a durational performance, and when you're waiting in between the other acts it's nice to pop over and see what he's up to: "Oh, he's writhing in agony while covered in black goo. Neat." 

Matt Goodmith
I initially figured Matt Goodsmith's Tertiary was hitting another of my performance art turnoffs, namely being extremely boring on purpose.  With two chairs on stage, he and another artist moved between them in patterns, moving between sitting and standing next to each other.  Hyper-conceptual pattern-based repetition drives me up the wall, but thankfully things evolved pretty quickly towards something more interesting.  They established two games with simple rules and invited the crowd to participate.  Very quickly, the crowd worked out ways to bend these rules, and little systems and movements sprang up from some very simple building blocks.  There was some nice adversarial confrontation between artist and audience here - each trying to outwit the other.

Next on was Jasmine Pytelová with Love Your Mother - which took the form of an intense magical ritual.  She took the stage in a red dress, a red and white cross drawn on her face and feathers in her hair..  Ripping the dress off revealed that the red line carried on down her torso, over her belly and all the way to her left foot.  Naked she slowly ground herself into a pile of soil at her feet, the room quickly filling with a warm, earthy smell.  She rubbed it all over her body, even eating some of it.  The sight of her staring out at us, blackened soil-stained lips was crazy powerful - giving me a good old-fashioned case of the cold shivers.

Jasmine Pytelova
It perhaps goes without saying that this ecosexual communion was powerfully and primally erotic.  As she writhed atop the dirt, pressing it into herself, the boundaries between human and environment being broken down piece by piece until they were one. The frank sexuality, pagan imagery and ecological bent of the piece hearkened back to sixties hippie performance artists, who were themselves referencing rituals from around the world, a continuity stretching back through ages. So it's appropriate that Pytelová concluded by wrapping a string around the audience's necks and connecting that to a small plant she'd planted in the mound, thus linking us all in one big sexy circle of life - our atavistic desire to spread our genes desire literally to mud, bacteria and foliage.  

I thought it was dead good.

Annamaria Pinaka & Jennifer Picken
Rounding out the evening was Annamaria Pinaka and Jennifer Picken's drag king reworking of Dead or Alive's You Spin Me Round.  Despite the three red-dress wearing dancers at the rear pulling 60s doo-wop shapes, the tone is pretty damn far from glamorous.  These personae the kind of smelly men you get stuck in line next to at the Post Office - all bad breath, deeply questionable personal hygiene and stained clothing.  With underpants bulging and lascivious expressions on their faces they slowly dance like a clinically depressed uncle at a wedding, revolving like they don't give a fuck.  It's a creepshow sight, and the perfect capper to a fascinating night.

My other option for the evening was to watch a film in which Helen Mirren opens a curryhouse in Paris.  Looks like I made the right call.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' (2014) directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

Thursday, August 28, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Nine years passed.  Nine years. Nine. The years creaked by like a rusty car door tortured by an inclement, cold wind. We forgot Sin City, preferred to pretend it was all a bad dream. Noir is dead, its remains splattered all over the wall like a Jackson Pollock painting.  A crazed deep howl in the night.  I glance up, last night's whiskey a virtuoso soprano hitting high notes behind my bloodshot eyes. A blinding light at the end of a tunnel.  It's getting bigger. Screaming towards me like a bat out of hell was the resurrection of Sin City: the whores, the blood, the booze, the beatings, the uh.. more whores (possibly in Nazi uniforms I dunno).  But now it's back.  The monster is loose!  The wolf is out of the cage!  Etc.

Yup - after a long hiatus this individualistic, disturbing and visually stylish world finally has a sequel.  Confession time: as a 22 year old student I absolutely adored 2005's Sin City. It sat at a unique crucial intersection of violence, warped sexuality and cinematic beauty that I lapped up. The cherry on top was that I'd been reading the comics since I was a teenager and was thrilled to see them perfectly realised on the big screen.  But as I broadened my political, ethical and cultural horizons I felt faintly embarrassed that I'd enjoyed it so much.

After all, it was a load of misogynistic, crypto-fascist hogwash right?  A world where every woman is a prostitute and every man of worth is a square-jawed crusader who battles against corrupt plutocrats (who are probably Democrats) and solves all his problems with "his mitts".  Not helping matters was that author Frank Miller, who had previously just been vaguely fascist, went completely off the deep end and (among other things) released Holy Terror, a book in which a Batman analogue takes on al-Qaeda by way of an racist, frothing rant that straightforwardly argues that every single Muslim is secretly a bloodthirsty terrorist.  

And it's not like Robert Rodriguez has been producing much of worth lately either.

So it was with some reservations that I sat down to watch A Dame to Kill For.  About five minutes in, as Mickey Rourke's Marv was dismembering some stuck-up college kids (who are probably liberals too), I was straight back in the Sin City zone.  I was enjoying the film in precisely the same way as I enjoyed the first; the only difference was now I felt vaguely guilty about it.

Finding myself enjoying something that every intellectual bone in my body tells me not to - a film where of black and white morality, where gender roles are carved into granite and where might indisputably makes right - is a strange and not particularly pleasant sensation. Fundamentally, Sin City appeals to the same base, reptile part of the human brain as fascist propaganda. It boils down complex issues to their most base level; presenting us with (literal) crudely sketched bastards and broads who spell out their motivations in torturous, simile-packed internal monologues and villainous stereotypes to hate.  

The material is entirely constructed around goodies and baddies, plutocrat villains motivated entirely by power and sadism.  These are bad guys with zero depth other than that they are evil, they love to cause pain and they will squash anyone that defies them. Pitted against them are Miller's trademark semi-reluctant heroes - noble men forced into extreme violence (usually to protect a helpless woman).  Nobody smells of roses in Sin City, but the torture, dismemberment and death dealt by our heroes is celebrated, while the villain's is demonised.

The stylised look of Sin City; all chiaroscuro computer-generated precision, presents blood as aesthetically tolerable splashes of white, while blotting out emotion under silhouette and gobs of latex plastered to the actor's faces.  This is violence as fetish; something dark and sexual a few steps removed from reality.  But pointing out that the violence in Sin City is fetishised feels like pointing out that the sky is blue.

Everything in Sin City is fetishised; from the ridiculous leather and latex BDSM gear sported by every single woman in the film, to the classic 50s sports cars, to the whiskey, the cigarettes, the sex, the money, the weapons.  It's like viewing the world through an omni-perverts eyes - every single goddamn thing framed with the same demented, lascivious, boner-inducing gaze.

Eva Green gets this worst than most.  She spends large portions of the film entirely naked, posing like a Greek statue.  In one memorable sequence she swims nude across the screen in slow motion; the imagery apparently taking direct inspiration from Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 Olympia (seriously, compare this and this). It looks great, but these are visuals lifted from Nazi cinema, expressly designed to inculcate nationalistic pride and promote ideas of eugenic perfection (it's notable that the only black person in the film is a servile, hulking brute).

Vexingly, even recognising these incredibly seamy undertones (overtones?) I still couldn't help enjoying myself.  Sure there's about three too many scenes where our heroes assault guarded fortresses and if you did a shot every time someone crashes through a window you'd end up with alcohol poisoning, but the film is too weird not to be entertaining.  I can at least respect a film that does ridiculous things like throw in a repulsive, entirely unexplained toad-man and has a plot-point of our hero having massive plastic surgery to change his identity, which appears to amount to a new haircut.

I don't particularly like Frank Miller or Sin City much anymore, this is unambiguously fascist cinema, from the aesthetics, morality and message.  But I can't help enjoy getting sucked into this pitch-black mire, the sickest part of me taking vicarious pleasure in wallowing through Frank Miller's ruinously broken psyche.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Cornershop' by Lucy Sparrow, 26th August 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I'm a bit late to the party in writing about Lucy Sparrow's Cornershop.  Everyone from The Guardian to Buzzfeed to Time Out has been enthusiastically singing its praises.  Even The Daily Mail has given it a nod of approval, which is either horrifying or deeply impressive. 

The idea is to recreate the entire contents of a generic cornershop from felt; from beer cans to crisps to sandwiches to newspapers to cigarettes to chewing gum.  Even the till is felt! I've written about Sparrow twice before; at the 2013 Whitecross Street Festival where she was standing next to her felt Warholised portrait of serial killer Rose West, and again at POP MODERN later that year, where she was exhibiting felt-based hardcore pornography.

So does Cornershop mark the point where the artist transforms from punkish enfant terrible to cosy mainstream kitsch? After all, having your smiling picture appear in The Daily Mail is a wallop to anyone's subversive credentials.  If you just looked at pictures of Cornershop you'd be forgiven to thinking this is the case.  Tiny smiling vegetables peek out from wire racks, looking for all the world like something a Japanese schoolgirl might tote around Shibuya.  The objects are individually impressive as a slavish recreation of corporate branding, but is it just an exercise in cutesey "Omg so random!"?

Actually visiting Cornershop is a different kettle of fish.  As soon as you walk through the door there's an unexpected air of oppressive.  The location must have been abandoned for years previous, the space filled with the cool smell of organic rot.  A heavy silence hangs in the air, as if the outside world had been blotted out completely.  On the rainy day I was there, a fat drip of water fell on my shoulder from a swollen, sodden ceiling.

These sights, sounds and smells dredged up memories of breaking into abandoned buildings, bending back wooden slats and sneaking through somewhere I shouldn't be - praying that the "Dogs Patrol Here" signs were bluffs.  They reminded me of illegal raves in office buildings where commerce was a decade dead, picking my way through the leftover detritus of 1990s officeware, feeling like a forensic archaeologist.

The upshot of is that the felt objects within are infused with a slightly uneasy aura. To understand why this is, I'm going to go via Baudrillard.  His famous treatise Simulacra and Simulation interrogates the distinction between symbols, signs and how they relate to contemporaneity.  Sparrow's felt objects (and the performance of running of the shop over a month) fall into the simulation category; "the imitation of the operation of a real-world object, process or system over time".  

It's worth picking over the similarities and differences between, for example, a can of Stella Artois and its simulated felt doppelgänger.  The original can is a commercial commodity, a disposable object with a clear use.  It's a temporary metal object that passes through our lives without comment, coldly gripped between meaty fingers, glugged down and summarily disposed of.  

The felt can is also a commodity (on sale for £20) but shorn of its use value it comes to represent something more sinister. This is Baudrillard's "perversion of reality": in opposition to its real-life cousin the felt can is soft and pliable, its status as art according it permanence rather than disposability, the hand-crafted nature divorcing it from impersonal mass-production.  Baudrillard's conclusion as to the consequences of unfaithful simulation are that the copy "masks and denatures" reality - the felt can nudging us towards a different view of the simulated subject.

Zooming out from this individual can to consider Cornershop as a whole, it functions as a lens through which the blizzard of branded consumer goods is distorted.  We're one step removed from normality and the knowledge that the felt goods have no 'use value' allows us to consider the world around in an unnerving new way.

This, coupled with the damp, slightly run-down surroundings gave me an idea of what it'd be like to have an alien perspective on modern consumerism.  Imagine if a normal cornershop underwent some kind of Pompeii-like thousand year sealing.  What would future generations make of these logos, designs and and colours?  "Who the hell was Alberto Balsam?"

We can get a taste of how quickly the familiar transitions into the alien by examining the case of 'the shop that time forgot'. After just forty years the familiar transforms into the strange; the common becomes bizarre - you can feel the foundations of normality shifting under your feet.  It's a queasy sensation, one that Cornershop accurately creates.

It's not a seismic shift in perception, as effective as Cornershop is in lifting the curtain of consumerism and letting us peek behind the curtain, Sparrow is kicking back against the fundamentals of capitalism.  But the lingering effects last for some time - venturing into a Tesco later that day to buy some dinner the products glowered down at me from the shelves, logos frantically bleating "buy me" like lost sheep.  For a split second the whole artifice was obviously ridiculous, then, inexorably, the illusion descended once more as I pondered whether I preferred a four cheese or spinach and ricotta pizza.

Cornershop is awesome in the most literal sense of the word - art that's both epic and totally humdrum at the same time has to be by definition.  The time and sweat that's gone into this is palpable, but effort alone doesn't make things worthwhile.  What does is that Cornershop pierces the veil of everyday for just a moment, letting us briefly see the clicking, grinding cogs that power our brains, our bodies, our economies and our wallets.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'The Guest' (2014) directed by Adam Wingard

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The core premise of Adam Wingard's The Guest is a rumination on what it would be like if Captain America was a total dick.  The answer is a bundle of silliness and over-the-top gore wrapped in a slick coating of beautiful synth music.  After the excellent You're Next and the V/H/S films Wingard is carving out a space for himself as the heir to John Carpenter's crown.  Like Carpenter's best, these films mischievously screw with audience expectations and take an unashamed thrill in the dishing out of outrageous death.

Taking a bit of a detour from Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens plays David, a US veteran who turns up on a bereaved family's doorstep.  He claims to have been best friends with their dead son, and gradually wins their respect and admiration - moving in as the titular guest. We quickly sense that not everything is right with David.  For one he's the smuggest arsehole you could ever hope to meet and for another he seems to solve every problem with brutal head smashing .  

Stevens deploys a smirk so powerful it could sink battleships, all the while behaving like an enormous cock to everyone around him.  Paradoxically he's such a colossal prick that we end up sort of respecting him for it.  After all, he's the one providing the entirety of the entertainment in the film and the feckless family that takes him probably have it coming. Steven's is pretty magnificent here, clearly relishing playing an unhinged nutter after so long trapped in buttoned down period drama garbage like Summer in February.

Our noble men in uniform turn out be complete monsters.  Didn't see that coming.
Quickly, similarities to Captain America mount up.  Everything from David's hairstyle to the costuming to his grotesquely muscled build to the nice-guy normality echoes Chris Evans' performance in the Marvel movies.  By the time Lance Reddick is running around as a Special Operations Unit commander, wearing a black, knee-length leather coat (practically in Nick Fury cosplay) it's pretty clear what they're going for.  If Marvel's Captain America is how the USA wishes it was, then The Guest presents the awful reality of a modern American Supersoldier.

He kills indiscriminately, exploits the weak and blows up buildings at a whim - with a bashful aw shucks smile on his lips and a baby-blue eyes stare.  Even as he goes berserk and takes out practically the entire cast we still find it hard to dislike David - but then a charismatic sociopath is always fun to watch.  

Bubbling under this are a few playful potshots at Refn's Drive.  I loved Drive, but there's a slight hypocrisy that The Guest picks up on.  We're supposed to condemn the violence in Drive as ugly and horrifying - the film criticising us for finding Ryan Gosling's lonely, emotionally stunted antihero attractive while couching him in the coolest of cool aesthetics.  The Guest shrugs its shoulders and says "So what? Blood and guts are awesome."  Both films share a exploitation, B-movie vibe, both share a predilection for bathing the frame in primary coloured light and both revel in faux-1980s synths - but they fork drastically in one crucial regard.  Drive is trying to be more than exploitation, The Guest is a B-movie and proud of it.

And boy do I love a good B-movie. I had a stupid grin plastered over my face as the plot lurched in increasingly bizarre directions.  By the time the characters are trapped in a 'Halloween Maze', full of fake zombies, grim reapers and sinister clowns I was in hog's head.  I figured there was no place other than down from that high - then we enter an Enter the Dragonesque hall of mirrors.  Right then and there Adam Wingard entered my directorial hall of heroes.

Dear Hollywood. More mirror mazes in films pls.
The cherry on top of this scrumptious cake is the outstanding score and soundtrack.  I'm going to hazard a guess that Wingard played and loved Hotline Miami, a brutally violent, retro-styled 2D indie videogame.  He's poached the best of the artists from its synth-drenched soundtrack - from F.O.O.L. to the mighty Perturbator.  No opportunity is passed up to cue up the synths by characters or director - the climax of the film even begins with our antihero/villain in a DJ booth cueing up a supercool track to finish the film with (on a dry-iced, disco-lit dancefloor).

What's particularly wonderful about The Guest is that it avoids so many of the pitfalls films fall into when trying to emulate the 1980s trash film aesthetic.  Many directors trying to pull this kind of thing off throw in a few winks and nods, reassuring the audience that the film secretly knows that it's rubbish.  Alternatively they use it as an excuse to turn out a substandard product, able to fall back on a defence that "it's supposed to be crap!". But Wingard's palpable love for his cinematic influences shines brightly: he doesn't look down on trash, he tries his best to live up to it.  

I honestly wasn't expecting to enjoy The Guest as much as I did but it had me hooked from frame one.  Though this isn't a big, important movie it's quietly and effectively satirical in dissecting the modern blockbuster hero: you can examine everyone from Jason Bourne, to Craig's James Bond, to Gosling's Driver and, most obviously, Chris Evans' Captain America through the prism of The Guest.  I thoroughly enjoyed every single second of this movie - and if we're keyed into the same sensibilities, so will you.


The Guest opens in the UK on 5th September

'I Believe in Unicorns' at the Vaudeville Theatre, 25th August 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Two slightly hungover men in their late twenties/early thirties attending a Bank Holiday show "suitable for children aged 5-11" raises a few eyebrows.  With no child in tow and let's face it, no obvious reason to be there (other than curiosity) we cut a slightly awkward duo. Fortunately the show also insists that it's also suitable for "everyone who loves great stories".  I love great stories!  At any rate, being sat in a warm theatre beats trudging through the gloomy, wet streets in danger of receiving a day-ruining bus-based puddle splash.

First impressions are sobering; this isn't a show targeted equally at adults and children like Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this is firmly for children.  A one woman show, Danyah Miller takes us through a didactic story based on the importance of reading and imagination.  She plays the a village librarian and, surrounded by piles of books, she tells us the story of a young boy named Tomas.  

Tomas likes to play in the mountains, imagining himself as all kinds of adventurers as he treks alone through the wilderness.  Much to the displeasure of his mother he hates reading - and anyway, he isn't particularly good at it.  His father doesn't see the point either, referring to books as "sissy stuff" and explaining that you can learn more in a day alone in the wilderness than you can with a month of reading.  But gradually the librarian wears him down until he finally appreciates just how awesome reading is.

The simple, carefully pronounced syllables, constant gesticulation and the achingly wholesome pro-reading message put me in mind of those high-wire insomnia fuelled nights.  The hidden hours of 4 and 5am tick by, birds incessantly tweet and the bastard sun rises over the horizon. The shops won't open for an hour or two, nobody else is about and unconsciousness is simultaneously so near and so so far.  So you flip on the TV and in an anoxic daze, settle for children's TV - dispassionately observing the chirpy presenters through aching, red-lidded eyes.

Swaddled in material that requires no brain power to enjoy, just a vague unfocussed attention on what's going in the rough 180° degrees in front of you, I was settling into a dozy rhythm.  

And then the Nazis showed up.  

It's fair to say that one of the last things I was expecting in this cosy little children's lesson was the arrival of brown-shirted, jackbooted, fascists, but then I suppose they are the natural enemy of books.  The show takes a pretty dark turn as the Nazis proceed to drive the terrified villagers into the woods, destroy all the houses and incinerate the library in hellfire.

The children quietened down. I think I even heard a few traumatised sobs.  Thankfully this is a play with a happy end - involving Tomas proving his love of books by entering the burning library and emerging with handfuls of books, then instructing the villagers to do the same.  Entertainingly we become the villagers - boxfuls of books being distributed at the back of the theatre which we pass forward towards the stage.  By end of the performance we finally realise that, yeah - reading is pretty good isn't it?

All that's just the A-story though and appropriately for a show that fills the stage with books there's a ton of miniature stories nestled within.  Highlights are a quick retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale, an improvised story based on suggestions by the audience that features Jaws swallowing the rain in Australia and burping it out onto London and, my favourite, an imaginative retelling of Noah's Ark that explains what happened to unicorns during the flood (spoiler: they turned into narwhals).

Throughout every one of these stories there's a repeated visual metaphor of objects emerging from books.  Miller draws objects big and small from them: pop up houses, golden eggs, ladders - even the sea itself.  It's a clever device, and the young audience obviously adores anticipating what's going to emerge next.  Best received is a kite that mischievously hops from book to book, changing size and drifting up above the stage and a Matryoshka series of books within books.  That last one brought the house down, and I made a mental note that apparently  the key to entertaining children is to produce a series of consecutively smaller items from one another.

Also keeping things visually dynamic are a series of projections onto the stage.  These are carefully judged, so Miller moves a parasol in time with a bird flying across the stage, or we see Tomas running through the pages of a book.  Most affecting is the sequence in which the village burns to the ground.  The house lights darken and one by one the tiny pop-up book houses on stage are consumed by fire, until huge flames dominate the stage.  

The only disappointing aspect is that the top half of the stage is occupied by acrobatic equipment and ladders.  I think the show shares its set with Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, and that Miller ignores them goes noticed by children around me.  But based on the reactions of the children around me the show went down like gangbusters. One of the useful things about watching a show surrounded by children is that they're not afraid of making boredom, and though collective attention wandered once or twice, they were engaged and happy throughout.

This is far from the most complex and thoughtful piece of theatre I've seen lately but then it's not supposed to be.  I Believe in Unicorns has a noble heart, a surfeit of goodwill - I can't imagine that children won't enjoy the hell out of it.  It's only on until the end of the week so if you want to keep your son or daughter occupied for an hour or so until term starts there's few better options.

I Believe in Unicorns is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 31st August.  Tickets here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

'Ballet Boys' (2014) directed by Kenneth Elvebakk

Monday, August 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Killers once asked “are we human or are we dancer?”  Kenneth Elvebakk's Ballet Boys answers by demonstrating that you can be one or the other – but not both.  His documentary, following three Norwegian boys with hopes of being professional ballet dancers, shows the determination, skill and good luck needed to succeed in a cut-throat world that demands perfection.

Our three young Baryshnikovs are Torgier, Syvert and Lukas, all of whom range in talent and motivation.  Lukas looks as if he's been genetically bred for dance success, all boy band blue eyes and confident grace.  He's  Terminator-like in his determination to make it as a ballet dancer, and skilled to the point that he outshines everyone in the film.  His superhuman skill is impressive, but makes him a bit unrelatable - the heart of the film lies with Syvert and Torgeir (but mainly Syvert).

In an early scene Syvert bemoans his East Asian ethnicity, explaining that he wishes he was white Norwegian.  Right away we recognise that he's nursing an inferiority complex next to the easy-going Torgier and dance commando Lukas.  There's a meaty psychological paradox at play in a boy who considers himself innately 'out of place' trying to climb the peaks of physical and mental perfection: transforming his body into a direct tool for artistic expression.

Torgeir is a different kettle of fish, though what kind of fish is anyone's guess. He's the Collins to Lukas and Syvert's Armstrong and Aldrin.  Mainly he's an amiable sort of guy, floating around in the background of scenes cracking jokes and stretching.  Though we peer into Syvert and Lukas' home lives, Torgeir remains an unknown quantity, a victim, I suspect, of  brief run time.

At a mere 72 minutes Elvebakk's film mirrors the bodies of its subjects; lean, pacey and with zero percent fat.  On one hand I appreciate brevity in cinema, optimistically treating it as a sign of a confident, concise director.  On the other how much justice can a documentary do to his subjects and the art of ballet in such a short amount of time?

Unfortunately this is more the latter than the former.  Ballet Boys bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve James' 1994 classic Hoop Dreams.  Both follow boys with big ambitions; one set to become professional ballet dancers, the other to compete in the NBA. Both show the emotional and physical toll it takes on the subjects, exacerbated by the weight of ambition and the knowledge that only a tiny minority ever make it.  Hoop Dreams follows just two boys, is nearly three hours long and is about as comprehensive a study you could feasibly get of its subject.  By comparison Ballet Boys barely skims the surface.

Another flaw is that other than the knowledge that they want to turn professional, Elvebakk never lays out the milestones they need to achieve to do it.  We jump haphazardly from auditions to audition with little idea of the stakes.  Late in the film we learn, almost as a postscript, that Lukas triumphed over nearly 1200 other applicants to get a place in a top ballet school, a fact that would have immeasurably upped the tension of the preceding scenes.

Also absent is any explanation of why they started dancing in the first place.  We meet them in the middle of their training and while some attention is paid to why they want to continue, we've got no idea how they began.  Ballet Boys recognises that being a teenage male ballet enthusiast is somewhat peculiar, so knowing what initially attracted these very different boys to this world would add a splodge of character to proceedings.

But the worst consequence of the short run time is that we don't get to see the boys properly  dance.  Sure, we get a few jauntily edited clips of them doing the odd move to a dubstep beat (presumably intended to show that ballet's hip, cool and with it yeah?) and a few seconds here and there from various contests, but I was craving a couple of unbroken minutes of footage demonstrating what each of these boys can do.  

Presumably the potential audience for a ballet documentary must, at minimum, enjoy watching people dance, so why the need to chop up their moves into MTV inflected quick cuts? This robs us of that Billy Elliot moment when we finally understand why they're pushing themselves so hard in pursuit of a distant aesthetic goal.

It's a pity because there's a lot of potential in these boy's stories.  I found myself craving more and more information as the film went on; what were their parent's reactions to their child deciding to go pro-dancer?  What do their non-ballet friends think of the whole affair? What, exactly do they want to achieve if they do make it?  All of this goes answered.  What's left is anorexic, as if Elvebakk doesn't think this subject and these boys are going to hold our attention.

The film has its moments – nearly all of them arising from the casual camaraderie between these three remarkable young men.  We sense the bond forged between them and they succeed in making us care about their success: we want to see them achieve their dreams. To the film's credit it does go some way to outlining the downsides to ballet; a destroyed body and retirement by the age of 40; the sacrifice of a 'normal' social life in favour of intensive training; the simple risk of a random career ending injury. 

These moments of illumination raise Ballet Boys from the humdrum, but it's just too slight to give us any real insight into the weird, high-stakes world of ballet.


Ballet Boys is released September 12th.

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