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Saturday, November 30, 2013

'This Ain't California' (2013) directed by Martin Perseil

Saturday, November 30, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

This Ain't California is an onion. Slice into it you reveal layer upon layer. Also it might make you cry.  It looks and behaves like a documentary yet has little or no interest in presenting an objective truth.  It purports to tell the story of a man who rebelled and then was consumed by the system, but then it turns out this man might not have existed at all.  Jean-Luc Godard famously said "film is truth 24 times a second", but This Ain't California lies its arse off 24 times a second.  Is that such a bad thing?

The film purports to tell the story of the East German skateboarding scene. It begins with children first glimpsing a skateboarder on television, and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.  The focus of the film is the adolescence and young adulthood in the 1980s of a group of East German boysy.   We meet them in the modern day, reuniting after the funeral of their mutual friend - the nucleus of the group.  They sit, middle-aged and maudlin, in the ruins of their old skate park, reminiscing about dead friends, the skateboarding scene and their lost, exhilarating youth, of which aall that remains is a handful of scratchy 8mm tape, rotten wood, rusty wheels and a boxful of photographs.

Middle-aged friends getting together after a while after the funeral of the dynamic centre of the group set to a soundtrack of music they listened to as kids?  Hey wait a damn minute - this is The Big Chill!  The two films recall very different times; The Big Chill focused on the failure of the 1960s radical movement; This Ain't California about East German skateboarders, but thematically they're near identical - a wistful glance back over the shoulder of middle-age towards a carefree youth.

In The Big Chill the motivational corpse is the briefly glimpsed Alex.  In This Ain't California it's Denis 'Panik' Paraceck.  His story is fascinating: as a kid his sports-obsessed father tried to beat him into an Olympic swimmer.  Panik rebelled, quitting swimming mid-race, running away from home and becoming a full-time punk-rock skater.  He's the wildest and most sexually dynamic person around, a crazy spinning top bouncing off authority, his friends and the starkly Brutalist concrete walls and floors of pre-unification East Germany.  Panik looks entirely possessed by the spirit of punk-rock, from the bottom of his beat-up skateboard to the tips of his bleach blonde spiky hair.  So how did this embodiment of anti-authoritarianism die?  Heroin overdose in a grimy squat?  Shanked in a prison by Neo-Nazi thugs?  Perhaps some bizarre skateboarding accident?  Nope - shot in a firefight in Afghanistan as a top soldier in the Bundeswehr.

Wait, what?!  This is the paradox that the film tries to answer, how can someone who so vigorously bucked authority come to embody it so completely?  Whatever the answer it's a fascinating story, the kind so bizarre it just has to be true.  But it's not true.  Panik is a fictional character played by a male model, photoshopped into archive footage, created whole-cloth from the director's imagination.  Further muddying the waters is that this isn't some twist at the end of the film: if you watched This Ain't California in isolation you'd assume it was all true.

As Johnny Rotten said, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"  People have gotten awfully upset about this deception, berating the director for polluting the virgin journalistic soil of what constitutes a documentary film.  On some level this anger is understandable - no-one wants to feel like a chump.  But then I guess it's to the film's credit that the illusion of truthfulness is so seamlessly constructed.  The fashions, street furniture and behaviour is so convincing that you just buy into it without thinking; the closest I came to genuine doubt was marvelling that the footage, supposedly created by 11 or 12 year old boys was suspiciously well-shot, though I just chalked this down to precocious talent.

Panik - current status fictional.

Why the deliberate deception?  A nice amount of textual friction is generated from the paradox of exploring skateboarding/punk-rock - a subculture obsessed with intangible 'authenticity' through the medium of a big fat lie.  Documentarian and director Werner Herzog, frequently refers a concept of 'ecstatic truth' when explaining his motivation when creating a documentary.  From Herzog's point of view, the documentarian's task isn't merely to present unvarnished fact - what he refers to as "a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants" - but to put on screen the irreducible truth of something, even if you have to re-orchestrate, script and intensively rehearse to recreate it.  Herzog (and apparently Perseil) don't think "am I telling the truth?" but rather "is what I'm putting on screen true?".

The distinction is a fine but important one.  Does it really matter that Panik didn't exist if his story tells something true about life as a young skateboarder in East Germany?  There's a decent argument that exploring this world of censorship, propaganda and government regulation through the medium of fibs is entirely appropriate.  After all, the primary weapon of the East German government against its citizens wasn't guns or bombs, but rather an all-encompassing 'Big Lie' that infiltrated every aspect of public and private life. 

After all these layers of deception, truth, history and politics have been peeled away, what remains? This Ain't California is, at about 90 minutes long, a pretty fast-paced watch. Perseil has a good handle on keeping up momentum, stocking the film with dynamic, skateboard mounted camera shots, fake and real stock footage and some very stylish black and white animation.  There are a few too many montages for my tastes, watching people pull tricks to generic skate-punk tracks gets a bit old, by the third one late in the film you you just want to find out how the story ends.  

It's difficult to pin down what kind of beast This Ain't California is - it obviously doesn't count as documentary, it's far from a parodic mockumentary and it isn't exactly drama either.  It's a cinematic chimera, difficult to classify and worth watching, yet somewhat standoffish about it's motivations.  It clearly wants to prove something, but what that something is remains mysterious as the final curtain falls.


This Ain't California is on limited release from 6 December

Friday, November 29, 2013

'Woyzeck' at the Omnibus Clapham, 28th November 2013

Friday, November 29, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

When you step through the doors of the Omnibus Clapham you walk into the world of Woyzeck.  The floor is covered in peaty wood chips, the air misty with smoke and the walls covered in ancient looking knick-knacks and gnarled wooden furniture. Bisecting the space is a row of carved stone support columns, giving the room a subterranean, exploratory tinge.  As you pick your way gently to your seats you pass two men; one furiously whittling a stake and the other collapsed against a pillar.  Against this the neat blue fabric of the theatre seats are utterly incongruous and so the audience becomes an interloper in this mad world.

Woyzeck is a play by Georg Büchner, written in 1836 and left tantalisingly incomplete at his premature death at age 23 of typhus.  Büchner's early death was unfortunate for him but fortunate for Woyzeck: the play gains from its imposed abrupt ending, allowing generations of dramatists to apply their own interpretations to the material  Though it's held in high regard now, the play wasn't performed for 66 years after the death of the playwright, but over the 20th century became one of the most influential plays in German theatre.  Prior to this, my only proper exposure to Woyzeck was the excellent 1979 film adaptation by Werner Herzog starring Klaus Kinski, so I was interested in seeing how the play worked as traditional theatre.

Woyzeck (Liam Smith)
Plotwise things are blessedly uncomplicated; we see the story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a 40 year old soldier living in Leipzig.  He lives with his unwed partner Marie, with whom he has a young child  considered a bastard and not blessed by the church. To earn a few extra crumbs, Woyzeck does odd jobs for a military captain and is used as a test subject by a doctor, who forces Woyzeck to subsist entirely on a diet of peas. This situation, coupled with Woyzeck's latent mental problems, causes him to begin to have a hallucinatory breakdown, experiencing terrifying apocalyptic visions.  Freaked out by her partner's odd behaviour, Marie begins an affair with a studly and buff drum major.  Driven mad with jealousy Woyzeck spirals further into madness, culminating in his stabbing Marie to death.  The play ends on an ambiguous note, with Woyzeck possibly committing suicide by drowning himself.

The Omnibus Clapham's production runs at a lean 75 minutes without an interval, and given the straightforward nature of the plot you might wonder just how complex Woyzeck can really be.  But almost every minute of Büchner's play is stuffed full of philosophical pondering about combative relationships: man v God, man v animal, class v class, man v woman, intelligence v stupidity and many more.  Woyzeck, put-upon and mistreated by all, becomes the ground on which these battles are fought, a man tugged and yanked this way and that by society until he can take no more.

Ruth Roger's puppet is hells freaky.
This production has a pleasingly comedic, warped pantomime sensibility running right through it.  Woyzeck's disturbing, violent delusions of a world scorched clean by fire  feel understandable when confronted with the hellish reality of his everyday existence.  His world is populated by demonic caricatures; the doctor experimenting on him might have stepped out of A Clockwork Orange, a fairground barker is nightmarishly intense and there are striking scenes involving creepily realistic puppet animals that look inspired by the living-dead motion of creatures in a Jan Švankmajer film.

This division between man and animal is frequently highlighted by director Robyn Winfield-Smith.  As the barker yells orders, the three puppeteers bring the beast to creepily realistic life, force him to stand to attention like a soldier and beg for money. This beast of burden is Woyzeck, the picture of a man debased and shat on by all sides. Liam Smith as Woyzeck does an outstanding job of creating a man that we never quite sympathise with, but even in the depths of his madness we still pity him and wish his life was better.  The performance is shot through with nervy tension - as he crawls on all fours you can't help but notice the way the tendons in his neck strain to breaking point; the eyes goggling out of his head combining anger, betrayal and the kind of scared confusion you'd see in the eyes of a punished dog that can't work out what it's done wrong.
David Rubin
The rest of the (surprisingly large) cast acquit themselves similarly well, though a highlight is David Rubin's appearance as a creepy merchant selling Woyzeck the knife to murder his wife.  The lighting perfectly picks out the flashes in his eyes as he takes a sick pleasure in providing a murder weapon.  This one scene struck me as particularly well conceived, the action blocked so that the characters never quite meet each other, the knife appearing in Woyzeck's hand as if was there all along - which in a way it was.

The theatrical space within the Omnibus Clapham works wonders in immersing you in this world, the smells, sensations and spooky ambient soundtrack bringing to mind Punchdrunk Theatre's current production of The Drowned Man.  It's only now that I realise that The Drowned Man is also a adaptation of Woyzeck - perhaps there's some psychic atmosphere that comes packaged the play: Büchner's premature death supernaturally leaching through the centuries, tinging the action with intangible sensations of oncoming apocalypse.

Or maybe it's just a sign of two concurrent productions that excel in their own ways.   Who can say? This production succeeds as intellectual meat, as technically excellent theatre and, perhaps most importantly, as entertainment.  The mordant humour suffusing the performances giving rise to some very twisted giggles in the audience and the exaggerated physicality of the performances keeping everything tight and fast-paced.  A great example of what you can do with 75 minutes and a talented, imaginative company.

Woyzeck is at the Omnibus Clapham until 7 December.  Tickets available here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Powder Room' (2013) directed by M.J. Delaney ★★★★

Thursday, November 28, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A mark of a good film is showing an audience something new: be it exploring strange science-fiction worlds, heightened pulp realities or just letting us experience the limits of human experience.  Powder Room show us something exciting and new, something not really seen before in cinema - an impressive feat considering the film takes place almost entirely in a women's toilet.  This is consciously mundane subject matter, yet with a clever script, excellent acting and some stylish directing the film transcends a (literally) bog-standard location and emerges a compelling and warm piece of cinema.

The film takes place over one big night out at a club.  Our heroine Sam (Sheridan Smith) is miserable, frustrated and determined never to let anyone find out.  She's stuck in some provincial town grinding through the days in a crap job while her Facebook wall is plastered with pictures of her friends getting married, travelling the world, having successful careers: -basically living the dream.  

Joining her are two friends, Michelle (Kate Nash) and Jess (Oona Chaplin). Both are stylish, attractive and successful.  Michelle is engaged and living the high life, and Jess lives a Parisian dream life with her husband, child and art collection.  Every moment Sam spends with them makes her feel ever more inferior - their success accentuating her own failings. Further adding to her woes is the unexpected appearance of her local friends: Chanel (Jaime Winstone), Paige (Riann Steele) and Saskia (Sarah Hoare).  From Sam's point of view their presence is an embarrassing reminder of a dull life that, just for one night, she'd like to pretend isn't happening.

As Sam battles to keep these two worlds colliding, her friends experience their own personal miseries and joys.  We take in snapshots of other groups of girls within the club; some teenagers who've snuck in with an older sister's ID, a woman looking for tips on phone sex, a girl who's turned up in fancy dress by mistake and many other glimpsed stories.  The women's bathroom thus becomes the stage for a byzantine psychodrama of recriminations, bitchy backstabbing, puking, sexual frustration and black rivers of mascara tears.

That Powder Room stands out so much in having an all-female cast is a bit depressing.  It's inevitable that this film is going to be pigeonholed as a 'chick flick' purely because it's concerned with emotional development and takes place in a location heavily coded as feminine.  I think an interesting way to look at it is as an sibling to Reservoir Dogs; a film largely set in one increasingly claustrophobic location and with all male cast. No-one thinks of Reservoir Dogs as a film particularly 'for' men - they just consider it a great film.

Powder Room deserves to be thought of in the same way.  Even though the film takes pains to accurately depict the relationships, neuroses and psychology of women, the roots of their problems are by no means uniquely feminine.  I found it exceptionally easy to relate to Sam's predicament, sympathetic to her embarrassment and sadly familiar with her frustrations. Male or female, we all know the shame of a close friend discovering that we've cruelly bitched about them behind their back.  We're all familiar with that bottomless sinkhole that opens up in our guts as we realise we're about to be caught out in a lie.  Most importantly, if we're being honest, we're all achingly aware of the gaping gulf between what our lives are and what we want them to be.

This core of the film is pitch perfect, but thankfully the film also functions brilliantly as a piece of cinema.  The obvious danger in setting the majority of your film within a bathroom is visual boredom.  But for the film's 86 minutes running time Delaney continually finds new ways of visually exploring the space; surprising us new perspective of the room's geography or lighting.  In addition, there's the occasional shot that dazzles in terms of composition. Something as simple as a wide shot of a smoking area is obviously put together with a careful eye for balance within the frame. Similarly there's a lovely shot of two girls sitting outside the club with blue and red dancefloor lights flashing through windows, contrasting the flat streetlit concrete around them.

Credit also has to go to way they shoot the club, which captures the chaotic drunken, drugged out nature of a nightclub pretty much perfectly.  In most films nigthclubs feel a bit sterile; a room full of extras gently swaying to a song added in post production. Perhaps  Powder Room did this too, but the closely packed shots with unfamiliar, oddly lit faces moving in and out of frame mark visual stylings borne of close personal observation.

Complimenting all this is an absolutely kickass soundtrack curated by Fake Club - a band I like very much.  The band themselves appear in the film, functioning as a loose Greek chorus.  Their brand of trashpunky, snarling, dissolute rock compliments the drama nicely, giving the film a rebellious dynamism and acting as a breather between long swathes of dialogue.  I particularly enjoyed their song Midnight at KOKO, a tribute to finding yourself on the dancefloor in the famous Camden club surrounding by bouncing, beautiful people

For all that, this is an actor's film.  Everything revolves around Sheridan Smith's performance, an actor can communicate a scarily large amount with a twitch of her eyebrows or curl of her lip. Still, everyone gets a moment to shine, my favourite moments being Sarah Hoare's impulsive, gleeful hug when her friend finally agrees to do MDMA with her, Jaime Winstone postcoitally fixing her makeup and cleaning her knees (!) and the tiny dialogue free moment where Kate Nash's Michelle realises her nose is bleeding from too much coke and tries to sniff the blood back up whilst remaining her composure.  

Perhaps the only fly in the ointment is the odd overly theatrical line of dialogue.  The film has its roots in When Women Wee, a play by Rachel Hirons, and very occasionally there are moments of dialogue or scenes blocked in a way that feel suited to stage rather than screen. But these are very small flies, and this is top class ointment.

It's a damn stylish film from the laser-projected opening sequence to the final musical number, containing dollops of pain and humour obviously drawn from personal experience.   Delaney manages the rare trick of being sad and funny at the same time - sometimes even within the same shot! Powder Room really deserves to do well, and though it feels destined to become a cult classic for women who like to drink, smoke and dance themselves through the night, anyone should be able to appreciate the quality here.  A hilarious, touching and deeply impressive directorial debut.

Powder Room is released on December 6th

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Free Birds' (2013) directed by Jimmy Hayward ★★

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Free Birds is an animated film about talking time travelling turkeys, something that at the very least is a relatively high-concept idea. In terms of animated films we're just at the end of the Pixar renaissance; their unbroken streak of classics through the 2000s terminated by the run of Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University.  Thankfully there's some interesting stuff being made in response; animation companies realising that if they can't compete with Pixar's emotional heft, they can at least be funnier, to play the Bugs Bunny role to Pixar's Mickey Mouse.

We follow the tale of scrawny misfit turkey Reggie (Owen Wilson), ostracised from his flock for trying to convince people that they're being fattened up to be eaten.  Fortunately he's saved from being killed by the intervention of the President, whose daughter selects Reggie as the one turkey to be pardoned at Thanksgiving.  Reggie then wallows in luxury until one day he's kidnapped by Jake (Woody Harrelson), an insane warrior turkey.  Jake's plan is to steal an experimental time machine (voiced by George Takei), travel back in time to the first Thanksgiving and get turkey off the menu, thus preventing an annual turkey massacre and saving turkeykind.

Marketing a Thanksgiving film outside the USA is a difficult task as these film tend to rely on the audience's emotional memory of their own family Thanksgivings.  So it's a clever choice that for the most part, Free Birds portrays the holiday from the turkey's point of view - an outsider's perspective.  I guess technically by the end of the holiday it'll have developed a literal insider's perspective, but by that point it'll be a pile of bones and cartilage so unlikely to have much insight.

The film has an interesting pedigree; director Jimmy Hayward has a 3D animation resume second-to-none, directing the first episodes of pioneering CG animated show ReBoot, before moving on to work on Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo.  Writer Scott Mosier comes from the Kevin Smith clique; producing and collaborating on every Kevin Smith movie from Clerks to Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  The two (who share credit for the script) have gelled well, settling for an irreverent tone that suits the absurd subject matter.

The problem is that this irreverent tone is pretty much the exact same irreverent tone and the exact same kinds of jokes that you see in practically every animated feature.  The high-mark of absurdist 3D animation is the excellent Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which Free Birds suffers in comparison to.  Both movies have a pleasingly cavalier attitude to science and general sanity, as well as a preoccupation with food.  What harms Free Birds is its narrative rigidity, firmly sticking to some pretty bland time travel conventions.

It's frustrating really: the film has the potential to take some interesting swerves but never does.  The central conceit of time travel is unimaginatively realised, you'd assume a film about altering the past would result in some imaginative impact on the future - but there's nothing.  More egregiously Free Birds says next to nothing about the ethics of eating meat (which considering the film is about finding an alternative to killing turkeys for Thanksgiving) feels rather cowardly.

Free Birds opens with an excellent shot of a Thanksgiving dinner table with a succulent stuffed and roasted bird as the centrepiece.  The camera then pans upwards to see the horrified face of a turkey as he realises his destiny.  This is promising stuff - a mainstream children's film equating a likeable talking animal with dinner is relatively bold subject material for a children's film.  These opening scenes recall memories of Aardman Animation's excellent Chicken Run, and whet the appetite for a film that's not only funny, but might actually have something to say.

Unfortunately it quickly transpires Free Birds is absolutely terrified of actually having any message at all.  The idea of our lead characters being killed, cooked and eaten quickly devolves into an abstract notion rather than a real danger.  This robs the characters of any real motivation and ever-so-slowly anything unique drains away to be replaced with the same samey, sludgy morass you could find in any number of identikit children's animation. What remains is a tired old Ferngully rip-off where the turkeys play vaguely offensive, dated Native American stereotypes as they wage warfare against the first settlers.

For all that there's nothing technically ruinous about the film, the voice-over cast do a largely professional job (George Takei as the time machine is probably the funniest thing in the film) and the animation is broadly competent in a by-the-numbers sort of way but won't show you anything haven't seen in a hundred other movies.  As a side note, many of the character designs look created capitalise on the success of Angry Birds, which is a rather cynical way to promote your movie. The one highlight is chief villain Myles Standish, who benefits from an interesting, well-animated design and being voiced by everyone's favourite grumpy Irishman Colm Meaney. 

It's not that this is a particularly awful film, and I'm sure its target audience of children will gobble it up (no pun intended).  Unfortunately children are stupid and tasteless and will happily watch anything if it's got talking CG animals in it.  It's the adults that'll have to see this with their children that I feel vaguely sorry for.  On their good days Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and so on can put out films that appeal to everyone under the sun.  Judging by Free Birds there's no technical reason this studio can't aspire to this same level, the only thing holding them back is the cowardly desire to dumb things down and play it safe.

Free Birds is on general release from 29th November 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

'Vendetta' (2013) directed by Stephen Reynolds

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Vendetta is a deranged, racist piece of shit with the morals of Richard Littlejohn and the collective intelligence of an EDL march.  This is a film so vicious, sadistic and unabashedly racist that it beggars belief - it's essentially the cinematic adaptation of the manifesto of Anders Breivik.  Ordinarily, when faced with your standard revenge fantasy you can console yourself by assuming that far-right politics are a natural consequence of the subject matter.  But Vendetta is a film that has something to say about Britain, something so bizarre that it's going to sound like I'm making it up - without one word of a lie - Vendetta sincerely argues that life in Britain would be improved by maniacs torturing and murdering people. 

That sounds like satire right?  It's not.  Here's how it goes down: Danny Dyer is Jimmy Vickers, a special forces soldier who is returning from a tour of service in Afghanistan.  He's been locked up for torturing to death an Afghan prisoner, a fact that gets the ladies in the film all wet and confers a grudging respect from every man he meets. But things are not good in London tahhhhhn.  His Dad witnesses a robbery, intervenes and proceeds to beat a teenager to death with a bat.  Later the gang breaks into his parent's house, tortures his Dad, rapes his Mum and then burns them both alive. Danny Dyer isn't happy.  Putting paid to the notion that two wrongs don't make a right he proceeds to torture and murder a bunch of teenagers while running from the police and reconciling with his ex wife.  

The only remotely positive thing about Vendetta is that it there are moments where it regurgitates far-right ideology so sincerely that the film briefly devolves into parody. Titters fill the cinema as Dyer mumbles "There was a time when I would have bled to keep the red in the Union Jack.".  You wrinkle your brow in bemusement when, standing over an unfortunate victim, Dyer gravely intones "Sorry? Sorry is a castaway word on the breath of the hopeful.." eh? You smile with astonished disbelief at the tin-eared dribbling lunacy of dialogue about walking tall and standing up for your own honour by... torturing teenagers.  Say whaaaat?

But, by and large the film is so goddamn banal that you can't even enjoy it as a piece of exploitation.  If the film kept a tight focus on Danny Dyer torturing people to death in increasingly creative ways then perhaps it could have succeeded as 'just' being tasteless.  No such luck.  Vendetta is eager to have its say about the state of modern Britain - painting a insane picture of a chaotic wasteland populated by irredeemable criminal gangs and uselessly effete, bureaucratic police officers. 

Writer/director Stephen Reynold's solution to this problem is fascism.  That sounds blunt, but blunt is right for a film has neither the time nor the smarts for subtlety.  Cringeworthy military fetishism isn't exactly surprising in action cinema, yet Vendetta takes it to a horrifying logical conclusion.  Jimmy Vicker's backstory is that he tortured an Afghan prisoner to death - an all too realistic plotline considering the recent trial of a Royal Marine for sadistically murdering a wounded man.  What's astonishing about Vendetta is that it goes to some lengths in dialogue to reassure the audience that being willing to torture and execute are what makes Vickers "a hero".

As Vickers ties people up, burns them alive, pours concrete down their throats and rips them in two it gets a bit difficult to sympathise with him.  Compounding the nauseating politics of the film is that this is largely about a white soldier torturing and murdering black teenagers - though I suppose if you're going to be so transparently fascist you may as well go the full hog.  There's some very telling use of language where, to excuse Vicker's war crimes, a Colonel explains that "those people are different from us, they don't fear death".  Later we get a snatch of dialogue explaining that "these people don't deserve justice".  It's telling that in order to justify the atrocities meted out by its protagonist, Vendetta needs to define the victims as another 'type' of person; a intrinsically and irredeemably violent degenerate; a subhuman fully deserving of pain and death.

There's lip service paid to the idea that maybe stopping crime by allowing maniacs to torture kids to death isn't actually such a great idea - though this is voiced by a ridiculous caricature softy detective who winds up humiliated and knocked-out.  What we walk away with is the suggestion that with the police unable to beat confessions out of suspects and the streets of London awash with crime ("this country’s changed, the riots were just the start of it")- the moral thing to do is sit back and let what amounts to a serial killer murder with impunity. I can't deny it's a bold philosophy. Really stupid obviously. But bold - certainly.  

I like to moob it moob it.  I like to moob moob it.  I like to.... moob it!
Leaving aside the scary politics for a moment, the film itself is objectively pretty crappy cinema.  Dyer  is stuck in neutral, perhaps convincing as a peevish cashier, but never remotely believable as a terrifying Special Forces expert.  At one point there's a tight close-up on Dyer's cute little moobs, a shot that's held so long and framed so carefully you suspect that the crew is having a giggle at the star's expense.  The rest of the film is passionless, formless cinematic sludge, constructed with as little effort as possible.  By way of illustration there's a moment where a mocked up newspaper appears in full shot - the prop was so bad that hushed giggles broke out in the cinema.  Screwing up something as simple as a newspaper is a sign that nobody is really giving a shit behind the camera.

So who is this film for?  Ordinarily I'd conclude that a cinematic rant arguing that Britain has gotten too soft, black kids are taking over the streets and soldiers need to rise up and wipe them out would be the territory of The Daily Mail and right-wing Middle England.  But it's not Mail readers that this is aimed at (the Mail is at least smart enough to veil its latent fascism behind the cloak of manners).  No, Vendetta is a film custom-designed to appeal to the English Defence League: realising on the silver screen their slavering, psychopathic race-war power fantasy.  

Fuuuuck that.  Fuuuuuuuuuck them.  Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck this film.

No stars.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Day of the Doctor (2013) directed by Nick Hurran

Monday, November 25, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Watching Doctor Who in a cinema is blasphemy.  Television in the cinema rarely works well; especially not special effects driven science fiction.  What looks great from the corner of your living room can look very cheap and nasty splashed over a 30 foot wide screen.  But blasphemy though it may be, at least it being on in the cinema gives me the excuse to write about Doctor Who, one of the only good things about an increasingly tired medium.

One of the major reasons the show is so suited to television is that the basic premise is television.  Doctor Who is about a man with a magic box who takes normal people to strange places.  The TARDIS, therefore, is a symbolic television: a real-life box that's bigger on the inside than on the outside.  Much like a television it transports ust to a new exotic world each week, exposing us to new ideas, expanding our horizons.  Doctor Who is the ultimate evangelist for the transformational power of television, its position that time/space channel hopping makes you a more rounded person.

At the centre of all this a mercurial character that might have stepped off the pages of a H.G. Wells novel.  Given his shared DNA with Wells, it's appropriate that The Doctor comes wrapped in the trappings of the most recent British fairy kingdom; Victoriana.  On paper he's an ideal of British imperialism; the compassionate, educated white man dropping out of the sky to fix the problems of the natives.  Thankfully in practice the Doctor works as more of a collective dream of Britishness; respected but not feared; kind but powerful, funny, whimsical; stylishly retro, sometimes foolish but still respected.  In many respects he's the natural creation of a sixties Britain still coming to terms with its diminished place in postwar geopolitics: a man able to retreat into history yet also equipped with the knowhow to deal with very British worries: fascism (Daleks), communists (Cybermen), immigration (Silurians) etc. 

His closest modern cultural analogue is James Bond. Both share immortality, but where the Doctor is an example of what, deep down we think we might be, Bond is a brutally misogynistic wank fantasy. The crucial difference is that Bond is designed as an export - his films dispatched to cinemas around the world to demonstrate Britain's cultural virility. On the other hand the Doctor is historically a domestic phenomenon; a way for Britain to explore its own history, culture and psychology with a steaming mug of tea on cold Saturday nights.

So, to The Day of the Doctor, the centrepiece of the BBC's bombastic 50th Anniversary bonanza.  Traditionally, the programme concerns the transformative properties of the Doctor as he acts as a catalyst for change wherever he is this week.  With a 50 year history and future stretching off into infinity it's difficult to actually develop him as a character, and so he usually functions best within a narrative as the static point which other characters bounce off.  Not here: the Doctor himself is the subject of the story - the point of the episode to examine just what the weight of 50 years of story does to a character.

The story presents us with the ultimate moral conundrum.  To stop a war that threatens to destroy the universe the Doctor must decide to kill billions of children.  The tragic twist is that he's already made the decision and carried out the deed.  In Doctor Who chronology the character did this just before the 2005 revival and each Doctor since has been haunted by this psychological trauma.  This is a trait that's been pretty extensively mined for dramatic potential; the paradox of a doctor killing his patient.

As is traditional for Doctor Who anniversaries this is a multi-Doctor show - David Tennant and Matt Smith's Doctors bickering with each other and finding things in common.  Thrown into the mix is John Hurt's 'War Doctor', a hitherto unknown regeneration that pressed the button, wiping a planet of innocents off the map.  After all three are together the plot then becomes a series of 'Labours of Hercules' that in turn demonstrate the essential qualities and flaws of the character.

The first is when all three are trapped within a cell in Tower of London.  They want to disintegrate the door, but calculating how to so will take hundreds of years. Using some charming Bill and Ted logic they figure out a genius solution; but just as they're congratulating themselves on their cleverness, the door swings open - it was never locked in the first place.  The second is done to resolve the small matter of an Zygon invasion of Earth, which, hilariously and appropriately is relegated to the B-plot.  When faced with two sides heading towards mutual destruction for the sake of an ambiguous greater good, the Doctor tears down the distinctions between the two sides, forcing them to consider the consequences of what they're about to do. All this adds up to the moment where all three Doctors are stood in front of a big red genocide button.  It's to the show's dramatic credit the audience assumes that it's going to be pushed; that the 50th anniversary is going to climax with the Doctor killing 2.47 billion children.  

In retrospect of course he finds a way out of it, being put in an impossible trap and getting out of it by the skin of his teeth is kind of what he does.  It's how the Doctor saves the day that's interesting - the material he constructs his solution from is nothing less than the history (and a smidge of the future) of Doctor Who as a TV show.  Almost uniquely in television (and in most forms of media) this is a 50 year unbroken narrative - in a metafictional twist, Doctor Who is saved by Doctor Who.  What's also implied (and in any other situation this would seem a mite pompous) that both textually and extratextually the show's outlook, imagination and humanity saves children's lives.

All this would almost be sappy if it wasn't done with such sharp writing, humour and intelligence.  By the time Tom Baker shows up the episode has done more than enough to justify a bit of self-indulgence.  Baker plays both himself and the Doctor (a neat mirror of the way the final scene of An Adventure in Space and Time has Matt Smith doing the same thing).  It's notable that we leave these characters within the National Gallery, a science fiction TV programme weaving itself into the tapestry of hundreds of years of British culture - with 'a' Doctor as Curator.  In this epilogue the character becomes a way for us to know ourselves, a lodestone as primed with cultural importance to Britain as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur.

It's a hell of a final bow at the end of a great special - Tom Baker informing us that actors, writers, directors and show runners will come and go, but there will always be a Doctor.

And quite right too.

Skrillex at Building Six, the o2, 22nd November 2013

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I've never been so profoundly affected by a gig in my life.  It wasn't anything so high-falutin' as musical virtuosity or poetic, lyrical genius.  No, Skrillex affected me on a far more fundamental level: by deafening me. This gig was fuckin' loud man, the kind of loudness where you walk into a place and think “ooh, that's a bit loud”.  About an hour later your eardrums have been completely blown out and the jet engine exhaust screaming into your ear becomes the new normal.  Even now, writing this more than a day after I walked out of the club, a shrill, high-pitched pain rings in my ears. Julianne Moore in Children of Men said this tinny scream is the death scream of ear cells – a requiem of frequencies that you''ll never hear again.  I don't know if that's true or not, but the idea is disquieting.  Is this kind of thing worth sacrificing your senses for?

Skrillex is the pseudonym of Sonny Moore, former singer of various hardcore bands who spotted the burgeoning dubstep trend and promptly switched genres.  His brand of hyper-aggressive, pop-trash dubstep is heavily rock influenced, with powerfully pulsing synth lines in place of guitars and a constant, body-shaking boom from the bass.  Since his rise to the top of the pile he's put out a number of hugely successful songs, played sets all over the world, dated Ellie Goulding and co-written the soundtrack of the best film of 2013.

Despite this success, Skrillex isn't thought of particularly highly.  This is perhaps understating things: dubstep fans despise him for infecting their pet genre with a cheesy pop sensibility, serious musos won't give him the time of day and those in the general public that have heard of him regard him as a trivial manchild with stupid glasses and a ridiculous haircut.  This isn't surprising - his music isn't for everyone – but for those that crave a bit of aural brutalisation it's just the ticket.  I'm firmly within this group:  you can only sit around sipping a glass of wine and listening to bloody acoustic guitars before you feel the urge rising inside you to freak the fuck out and go bonkers to silly/trashy music.

Before I get bonkers, I've got to get into the club.  The security at Building Six is about comparable to boarding a plane.  After getting my photo-ID scanned into their database, having my socks searched for drugs and my wallet rustled through I'm finally in.  Stepping inside the place is absolutely ram-a-jam.  Building Six is a pretty big club but you can't move without having to squeeze yourself through a mass of sweaty, writhing,  happy flesh.  

Eventually I carve out a space for myself in a crowd that, to put it bluntly, looks pretty damn drugged out.  After a bit of straightforward dubstep to get us in the mood, the music takes a swerve and suddenly we're listening to the greatest hits of Bob Marley and the Wailers.  In the stygian depths of a dark, dank nightclub Marley's positivity is a breath of fresh air.  

It turns out to be an oddly appropriate build-up for Skrillex, who, for all the opprobrium thrown at him turns out to be a rather loveable sort of chap.  He's short and wiry, jumping up and down behind his decks excitedly, getting off on the way his basslines roll right through the crowd.  He's uncynical in way that only Americans can really be, restricting himself to platitudes like “Oh my god guys I'm so happy to be here!” or “Let's hear some noise London – yeah!”.  Not exactly Oscar Wilde levels of repartee but his heart in the right place and anyway, as witty as Wilde was his bon mots never got a thousand people going mental for a big drop.

As for the music?  Well, as Woody Allen said “the body knows what it wants” - and it turns out my body wants big dirty stinking bass.  Skrillex's music is as shallow as a puddle, his not-so-secret weapon the big bass drop that's been endemic to pop music since about 2009.  It's dumb.  It's repetitive.  It's  completely tasteless.  But boy oh boy is it fun to dance to.  He pulls out some of his biggest hits relatively early on, the crowd whooping maniacally over the synth swell of the first bars of Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites: the greatest minds of my generation lolling their heads from side to side in an anoxic daze, shaking their asses hypnotically to the crazy pulsating beat.

Soon after comes his collaboration with with Damian Marley Make It Bun Dem, a car crash of dub reggae with Skrillex's wubbiness.  It's great: the bass thumping through the body kinetic dancefloor of Building Six, my heart beating to the rhythm.  Skrillex's rock roots shine through in the epically cheesy Bangarang, a very, very silly song with an undeniably insistent and irresistible pumping beat and one hell of a big drop.

It's songs like these when realise the genius of Skrillex's formula – a weird portmanteau of rock and dance that's neither one nor the other.  This isn't just about putting some electric guitar sample in a dance song, or adding some bleepy bloopy backing track to an indie number – it's a telepod fusion of the two.  Behind me forms a mosh pit full of gasping wet sweaty bodies, eyes rolling madly around their skulls like marbles in a porcelain teacup.  It's primal and instinctive; the characters in a Hogarth painting wrapped in glow sticks and illuminated by sickly sharp green laser light. 

At the climax of Skrillex's many thumping drops, there's a whoosh as pipes spray choking clouds of dry ice down upon us.  The stuff leaves an acrid taste on the tongue, temporarily blinding you in a nightclub fug.  Getting caught up in this kind of surging, searing barely controlled dance panic feels dangerous.  I walk out of there a damaged man: ears blown to fuck, eyes stinging with sweat, clothes stuck to my skin, an unsettled stomach rolling in my gut and a mind ringing like a badly forged bell.  Was it worth all the pain?  Fuck yeah it was.

Photographs by Chris Wilcox

Friday, November 22, 2013

'Star Food & Wine' by Waxwing Exhibitions, 21st November 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The deserted hulks that haunt our streets fill me with curiosity.  When you've lived in a place long enough you learn which shops are permanent, which change hands every year and which are the slowly collapsing no-hope wrecks. Whitecross Street used to be notorious for these, film companies coming here to capture authentic urban decay. Peek through windows of these abandoned buildings and you'd see nature versus valuable Central London real-estate. Collapsed ceilings let you look right through the building to the grey sky behind it, the neverending rain creating impromptu water features - obscenely swelling piles of newspapers with a datemark of 1995.  It was kind of cool in a slum-chic sort of way but boy did it stink - god knows what was breeding in that decade-deep layer of rotting trash. Perhaps it's for the best that they're gone.  Yet one remains...

You'd think that a shop on Old Street would be a prime business opportunity but Star Food & Wine has been a mummified corpse since I moved here four years ago, a disused and dirty full stop at the end of a kickin' cool street.  But not this week!  A group of artists have resuscitated the patient, jamming a transfusion of life into her dusty old veins - now what was decaying behind rusty shutters is brimming with life and creativity. Star Food & Wine now contains work by artists who've been involved in exchange at art schools around the world "from New York to Paris and Kyoto to Tallinn" as the material puts it. Packed into the three floors are a pleasingly wide variety of art; ranging from photography, to appropriated objects, interactive art, multimedia - even room size installations.  

A Place I Thought Would be Our Future Home - Dorthe Slej Pederson
Much of what I enjoyed here was a reflection on what it means to occupy a space and alter it purely by your presence.   Up on the first floor was a huge photo-collage by Dorthe Slej Pedersen called A Place I Thought Would Be Our Future Home.  This consists of a mosiac of over-lapping pictures that add up to a single room.  The concept of "home" is deceptively slippery to pin down; something that has to be simultaneously fixed, firm and concrete, while also being ephemeral and transitional.  As you move in and out of houses, forever dragging boxes and suitcases cross a blasted grey cityscape you leave marks on where you've stayed and they leave marks on you.  Pedersen's piece compresses this idea into a single image, boiling down a series of locations and objects to show us what stays constant and what changes.

One consequence of displaying in a found space is the building becoming an important component of the work.  Pieces like Yuki Kobayashi's The Community and Untitled gain new dimensions purely by being framed against shattered brickwork and exposed cement.  In a traditional gallery space these plush, strawberry-headed figures could look a touch sugary-sweet.  Here, slumped in the corner of a smashed building they look more like wiped out junkies.  Intentionally or not, the work gains an edge purely by dint of where it is.

The Community and Untitled - Yuki Kobayashi
I'm not going to pretend that holding an exhibition in an abandoned building is some bold new direction in art - you could probably attend ten other shows in similar surroundings right now - but though the general atmosphere is familiar I still get a tinge of excitement at being somewhere I shouldn't.  Frankly I'd be happy as a clam here without the art, so what works best are the pieces that work with the surroundings rather than compete for attention with it. 

Sous Les Paves, A Tree - Sidney Charity
A good example of this is Sidney Charity's the understated and tucked away Sous Les Paves, A Tree - a piece of concrete that'd hardened around a tree.  As the tree grew it cracked and broke away.  When in spaces like this it's difficult not to have architectural decomposition at the forefront of your mind, and this piece neatly shows how apparent permanence crumbles against the simple formula 'nature+time'.

Scape - Angus Frost
But the piece that best summarises the idea of urban exploration is Angus Frost's Scape.  In a corner of the musty cellar is a corridor. As you venture down this low lit passage you find yourself enmeshed in a winding labyrinth of plastic sheeting, walls guiding you through a disorientating maze.  Everything is lit in soft blue and there's a electronic whine emitting from parts unknown.  You pass dirty pipes and crumbling cellar walls - eventually reaching an unexpected space.  There's a large, wide hole in the ground with a plant hanging above it; bits of neighbouring buildings rudely intrude over our heads, blotting out the sky.  It's difficult to say where we are geographically, but there's a spooksome 'wrongness' to this place, as if the world was a movie set and you've accidentally stepped behind the scenery.  

Snooping around the mysterious basement of an abandoned newsagent is very much my kind of thing, more than satisfying my desire to poke my nose where it shouldn't be.  It's slightly frustrating that Star Food & Wine is on for just four short days, it'll be sad to see the life breathed into the building quickly dissipate and the place return to moldering slumber.

There's a whole bunch of stuff to see other than what I've described here: I haven't even mentioned Alice Woods' Facebook-blue mannequins with security camera heads or the machine that prints out anonymous secrets or the sound-triggered installation or the... well you get the drift.  If you're into any of this stuff you owe it yourself to get your ass down to Star Food & Wine before Tuesday and have a damn good poke around.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lemaitre at Fabric, 20th November 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Daft Punk's 2001 album Discovery has a lot to answer for.  After 12 years the sound it pioneered continues to reverberate around the music industry, singlehandedly reviving the disco beats dormant since '78 and combining them with soaring synth lines and noodling electric guitar solos.  It's a winning recipe: upbeat pop with a pumping dance edge, music that works as well after midnight with a headful of stimulants as it does cycling miserably to work the following Monday morning.  

It's not really surprising that Lemaitre are so fun, after all, they are Norwegian.  If there's an area of the world more likely to put out consistently great pop music than Scandinavia I'm yet to find it.  Lemaitre are Ulrik Denizou Lund and Ketil Jansen, (though last night they played with third person about whom I can find out nothing).  Since forming in 2010 they've ridden a wave of online popularity, their third EP reaching #1 in the iTunes electronic albums chart, as well as amassing 56,000 followers on Facebook and becoming one of the most listened to artists on Soundcloud.

From the moment they take to the stage it's easy to see why people fall for them so easily. Scandinavian pop is irresistible, especially so when it's being played by three charismatic and happy guys..  The crowd reflects this happiness right back up at the stage, the audience a sea of smiles shining out from glistening, mildly sweaty faces.  The nature of the stage at Fabric means that there's no barrier separating band and audience, and the members frequently perch on the edge of the stage, exchanging conspiratorial smiles and matey fist-bumps with those in the front row.  

The band have gone to some effort to make a visually interesting stage show, setting up a polygonal spiky structure to project designs onto; kind of like a budget version of Etienne de Crecy's giant moving cube.  It's not really in the same ball-park as far as spectacle goes, but the polygon provides a much needed bit of scifi theatricality (even though someone inadvertently pulls the HDMI lead from the back of the projector towards the end of the gig.)

Despite the music staying firmly within the Discovery template, there's a pleasant bit of variety. Highlights are the piano and synth led Cut to Black, in which you hear echoes of the laid-back plinky-plonky minimalism of Metronomy or Royksopp. The melodies progress and overlap, instruments and vocals building into a sound that's both sincere and as light, fluffy and delicious as a well-made soufflé.  

The chilled out crossroads between indie, pop and electronica is prime territory for a band to occupy: if you can please fans of all three genres you've got it made.  Lemaitre's three EPs relentlessly hammer this sweet spot, so it's a bit of a surprise that they can get so heavy live. As pleasant as the melodic numbers are, it's when Lemaitre rock the fuck out just after the long build-up; a half second of silence and them *boom* - shit goes bananas.  Perhaps in 2013 this is a bit played out, but dammit, it still does the business for me. 

These moments of primeval musical abandon are what Fabric is designed for.  Even on a work night with just two beers inside me I felt swept up in an ocean of energetic joy. As they reach the tipping point of a drop the light briefly dims and the band exchange a knowing glance.  As the bassline kicks in the strobes fire; crimson laser curtains hove down through the billowing dry ice; and as one body the shiny happy people bounce up and down, the floor imperceptibly flexing as a hundred Converse clad feet impact against it.

Lemaitre clearly enjoy the effect they're having on the crowd, the band all grins and smiles. Towards the end of the gig Ulrik, mic-in-hand, launches himself into the audience, jumping around with us while singing away at the top of his lungs.  Sure I've seen this kind of thing a thousand times before, but it never fails to put a smile on my face.  I moments like these you sense the warmth of emotion coming from the crowd; though all too often the lyrical content of the songs is beside the point most people seem to know the words, or let out a whoop of anticipation as they recognise the opening bars of a favourite song.

The most vexing thing about the night is a problem common to nearly all bands with a strong electronica/dance element: how much is live and how much is pre-recorded.  There are moments in the gig where the band surplus to requirements, the fiddling around with dials, keys and guitar having little obvious effect on what we're hearing.  The multi-instrument melodies make it difficult to discern who's doing what; causing a dislocating effect when someone stops playing the guitar and the music carries on with no clear change.  I get that it's not practical to recreate their sound live, but singing away to a backing track feels like an illusion of a musical performance rather than the real thing.

Fortunately this is easy to forget whilst you're in a hail of laser beams with the bass rattling the air in your lungs and bright lights flashing in your eyes.  The songs are solid, the band seems nice and the venue is top notch.  Sure they may be a bit derivative of Discovery sprinkled with bits of pieces of other mid-2000s-y electro, but when the music is this much fun who cares?  Lemaitre: a good band.

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