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Monday, March 31, 2014

'Calvary' (2014) directed by John Michael McDonagh

Monday, March 31, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Two Irish Catholic priests live together in an isolated Irish village. One of them has a cosmopolitan attitude to life that's at odds with the rural environment he finds himself in, the other is dull as ditchwater.  Their parish is almost entirely populated by the eccentric, the psychotic and the just plain weird. Sound familiar?  Yup, Calvary is a down-at-hell, darkly comedic psychodrama by way of Father Ted.  It's also quietly brilliant and very, very complex.

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle (who is presumably not named after the DJ). He's everything you hope a priest would be: intelligent, tolerant, kind and caring, looking after his parishioners in a quietly paternal fashion: bringing a parcel of food to an elderly writer one moment, gently enquiring as to why someone's wife has a black eye the next and dispensing pretty damn good advice to confused young men. The real problem in the film the congregation; the village seems to attract sinners like honey attracts flies.

Calvary announces its intentions from the unforgettable opening line of the movie: "I was seven years old when I tasted semen for the first time".  This comes from a mystery man talking through a confessional screen, who proceeds to explain that he's a victim of Catholic child abuse and consequently he's going to kill Father Lavelle a week next Sunday.  There's never the remotest question that Lavelle abused any children - he's been chosen precisely because he's innocent, the justification being that killing a bad priest is pointless, but killing a 'good' one will send a message.  Lavelle takes the threat phlegmatically, and the rest of the film gradually counts down the days of the week until Sunday and his impending murder. The 'Calvary' of the title, named for the site in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, is the village beach where our priest will undergo his own sacrifice and torture.

The cinematography is austere and precise without ever seeming mannered, the jaw-dropping enormousness of the Irish geography framed to diminish the people within it. There's something primordially biblical about the landscape, the winds and waters whipping through it creating an impression of unfinished creation.  Characters lean against millennia old granite builders, or stare blankly out over a rough sea - all under an overcast sky.

The sum of all these impressions is that this is a village abandoned by God. Nobody seems remotely devout here, regarding the priest as at best a figure of fun and at worst a nannying bignose. Even Father Lavelle himself never seems particularly religious, placing his social duties to his parish far beyond any obligations he has to supernatural deities.  This absence of spirituality leaves a psychic hole in the village, something intangible has vanished from the place - while their backs were turned the devil got in.

Don't think that Calvary is a studiously Christian movie though - the Catholicism that the film revolves around is portrayed as a stuffy, corrupt bureaucracy manned by the incompetent and the stupid.  When the villagers sling jibes about the greed of the church, the out-datedness of its beliefs or its propensity for child rape they hurt Father Lavelle all the more because they're dead on the mark.

Pretty soon you realise that McDonagh intends this village and its inhabitants as a microcosm of modern Ireland. The collapse of the 'Celtic Tiger' is at the forefront of nearly all the character's minds, and the injustice of it is embodied in the character of Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran). Fitzgerald is a prick; a former banker who thrived in the soup of dodgy dealings before the 2008 crash and got out at just the right time. He took his millions and ran, living alone in a fabulously opulent mansion just outside of town and sinking into a narcissistic, egomaniacal alcoholic stupor. This is a film jampacked full of pointed allegories; the angriest an astonishing moment where Fitzgerald yanks the priceless renaissance painting The Ambassadors by Holbein from his wall and pisses on it "because I can".

The slanted skull at the centre of The Ambassadors is about as good a symbol of Calvary as you can get. From the initial premise on outwards the film is obsessed with death and dying; tossing in morose stories of young children locked into paralysed, senseless bodies, young men wanting to join the army to kill people, a visit to a cannibal in prison, fatally senseless car accidents and two entirely separate suicide attempts; one happening before the film begins and one planned to happen soon after.  

If all this is an allegory for modern Ireland, John McDonagh must be a deeply pessimistic dude.  Here we see a morbid, traumatised society on the brink of collapse; spiritually vacant, sexually abused and economically assaulted this is a world spiralling down the plughole. The best intentions of good men count for nothing within this nihilistic, bleak worldview, the film essentially concluding that we're doomed and nothing (certainly not God) is going to save us. It all comes together over the closing credits, interspersed with the names of grips and gaffers are shots of the sets devoid of people. Somehow, somewhere the apocalypse quietly crept in, the disappearance of all life just about the only peaceful conclusion McDonagh can imagine.

Bloody hell that got a bit grim. I should mention that on top of all of that Calvary is pretty damn funny. Everyone gives their all, particularly Brendon Gleeson who absolutely nails the role to the extent that it's difficult to imagine any other actor hitting the same subdued, intelligent emotional notes as he does here.  The script is dynamite, the casting is top-notch and it's just sonically and visually sumptuous. A delicious treat of a film.


Calvary is on general release from April 11th.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) directed by Anthony & Joe Russo

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

When Iron Man was released in 2008 it was a shot across the bows of the superhero genre. A combination of great dialogue, brilliant casting and slick pop-inflected direction added up to a film that, while easily recognisable as a Hollywood blockbuster, possessed something new and unique.  But six years on, with nine Marvel films and a TV show under their belt, what was once shiny and new is now slightly and predictable. Audiences know the score with Marvel movies so they have to mix things up - be it through the buddy cop comedy caper of Iron Man III or the upcoming bonkers-looking space opera Guardians of the Galaxy. So what's new for Captain America and his buddies in SHIELD?  Well Marvel has decided to get political, and boy is it a mess.

The Winter Soldier revolves around a simple question; what if the goodies were (wait for it) secretly baddies? SHIELD, who have always been depicted as US Homeland Security on steroids were treading pretty questionable moral ground in The Avengers and as The Winter Soldier opens we find them wading through even murkier waters.  They're building a fleet of enormous flying gunships capable, as a proud Nick Fury explains, of eliminating threats before they even have a chance to harm anyone.  This doesn't sit right with the upstanding Captain America, who blithely notes: "This isn't freedom. This is fear."  

This all sets the stage for a twisty-turny tale of double-crosses and betrayals interspersed with car chases, huge explosions and burly guys punching each other to no obvious effect. It's pretty clear what the Russo brothers are going for:  All the President's Men with superheroes.  They've even cast Robert Redford, who obligingly leans against windows overlooking Washington and hammily pronounces guff like "In order to build a better world, sometimes you need to tear the old one down." (During this scene a huge, blinking neon arrow is pointing at Redford reading "He's the baddie!".)  

I suspect that knowing that Captain America is a pretty boring superhero, they put in this guy, an even MORE boring superhero, to make Cap seem more interesting in comparison.
There's a whole bunch wrong here but it all boils down to simple cowardice. The film is obviously the product of a post Wikileaks/Snowden world, drawing none-too-subtle parallels between the mass surveillance of SHIELD and the evil shit the NSA has been up to.  The problem is that though the film sternly wags its finger at this sort of thing via the totemic 'golden generation' figure of Captain America, it just doesn't have the guts to be outright condemnatory. The end product is a castrated film, one that wears the trappings of a political thriller but without the politics - rendering it impossibly slight at best and dangerously simplistic at worst.

The biggest flaw is that with agencies like the NSA and GCHQ et al being genuinely supervillainous in real life there's very little room for exaggeration. So the film becomes an infantile exploration of what might happen in a mass-surveillance society if there were a few superheroes about, which feels vaguely masturbatory.  But hey, a bit of wish fulfilment isn't such a bad thing right? At the very least it should be cathartic watching a muscular man in a brightly coloured costume decking the person who ordered all this surveillance.

It's not - primarily because the crux of the film is two quasi-fascist organisations squaring off against each other. The anti-democratic Fury-knows-best tight uniforms and black ops wetwork world of SHIELD versus HYDRA, literal Nazis.  It's Nazis versus Nazis folks, and the film expects you to root for the 'good' Nazis. If this weren't merely an episode in an ongoing multi-billion dollar franchise it could have shaken things up, but it's almost obliged to return to the status quo by the time the credits roll.  Nothing can change too much in Marvel's world, so in place of actual politics the film settles for criticising the mass surveillance of citizens by painting it as an attack on the incredibly nebulous concept of 'freedom'.

Easy on the eyeliner there son.
We're in George W Bush country here folks, the extent of Captain America's political nous expressed as "The price of freedom is high... and it's a price I'm willing to pay!".  Listening to doggerel like this you want to slap the film around the head - it's rubbish like this that created the very situation you're criticising!  The conclusion it arrives at is that mass state surveillance is an alien intrusion into the fine process of US militarism and that once you've gotten rid of that problem everything will be just hunky-dory and we can go back to the 'regular' military state. So The Winter Soldier ultimately finds itself in the perverse position of arguing that we merely need the 'right' kind of fascism.

Frankly it's a bit of a mess elsewhere too. Chris Evans does the best he can, but it's difficult to get away from the fact that Captain America is a pretty dull superhero.  Things aren't helped by giving him a partner who can fly (which is ready salted crisps as far as superpowers go) and one that can shoot people.  The titular Winter Soldier is a non-character, having maybe 4 or 5 lines in the entire film, spending most of his screentime glaring petulantly like a teenage goth forced to go on holiday to Disneyworld. 

It's all a bit of a shame. If this film had a bit more bravery and brains it could have been a great piece of subversive agitprop with a huge potential audience.  As it is it's just a dumb blockbuster with pretensions of relevance working studiously through the established Marvel movie formula. A formula that's looking increasingly creaky as the countless sequels tick by.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on general release.

Monday, March 24, 2014

'Muppets Most Wanted' (2014) directed by James Bobin

Monday, March 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Pixar spent years wrestling with millions of polygons and complex shaders to get their characters to emote believably. Jim Henson did it with some felt and a ping pong. In a digital era the Muppets are fiercely analogue, somehow intrinsically nostalgic.  Admittedly I've never been a huge Muppets fan myself; I enjoy The Muppet MovieThe Muppet Christmas Carol and though I never technically saw the 2011 revival, I did watch half an hour of the French dub while drifting in out of consciousness in a Dutch flophouse and from what I can remember it looked pretty fun. Even so, something about these characters never quite did it for me.  But after watching Muppet Most Wanted I think I'm finally coming around.

This is an old-fashioned caper comedy with a great gag every few seconds that just about manages to sustain a snappy momentum until the credits finish. The plot revolves around the machinations of Constantine, "most dangerous frog in the world". Escaping a Russian gulag he sets out to steal the British Crown Jewels with the help of his number 2, the mysterious 'Lemur'. Meanwhile the Muppets have just taken on slick new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais).  Soon Constantine and Kermit have switched places; the slimily violent criminal in charge of the Muppets and our loveable frog hero thrown into a dingy gulag hellhole populated by the likes of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo and run by Nadya (Tina Fey), an icy Russian dominatrix type. 

Naturally none of this guff is taken at all seriously, the plot functioning as a vehicle for a series of brilliantly written songs, top jokes and decent enough action sequences. There's a Simpsons-esque devotion to ramming as many jokes in as the film can take without collapsing under its own weight. The jokes range from simple (but well-executed) slapstick to cutaway parodies of Ingmar Bergman, or split second appearances from celebrities ranging from Lady Gaga to Russell Tovey.

I know Kermit's director costume is a reference to somebody.. but who?
Going in I had my misgivings - primarily Ricky Gervais-based. Though I enjoy The Office I find pretty much everything he's done since annoyingly ingratiating. There's only so much infuriatingly smug "isn't this silly" mugging to the camera I can take. That all said I've got to admit that Gervais is damn good here, fitting snugly into the Muppets universe and, by and large, taking his character as seriously as he needs to.  In musical terms the showstopper is the excellent I'm Number One, a duet between Gervais and the evil Constantine, a beautifully constructed piece of musical cinema between man and muppet.

Similarly excellent is Tina Fey as the buttoned up Russian prison guard with a secret soft spot for Kermit. Though stern, domineering and faintly scary she's somehow loveable, managing to make her admiraiton and growing infatuation for a felt frog puppet weirdly believable.  Also (and I hesitate to mention this), Fey looks totally bombin' in the vaguely Soviet uniform she wears, the outfit pushing hidden buttons hitherto unknown in my psychology.

But good though the human characters are, this is very much the Muppet's movie. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest all getting their individual moments in the spotlight - and it's their emotional development that anchors the film.  It's a testament to the skills of Jim Henson that it's so easily to get wrapped up in his idiosyncratic universe, instinctively buying into the love between a pig and a frog and really, genuinely caring about these Muppets staying together.

Damn that uniform is fine.
While the classic Muppets are all well-served, the villainous newcomer Constantine is a highlight. I think he's simply a Kermit puppet with a mole on one cheek, but whoever's got his hand stuck up his arse does a great job of making him physically distinctive from Kermit. Constantine scowls, curls his lip in disgust and generally evils it up throughout the film - all conveyed through a slightly different way the puppeteer moves his hand. He's deftly, quickly and humorously drawn - simultaneously laughable, an obvious threat and makes the idea of "the most dangerous frog in the world" strangely plausible.

And now onto the geopolitics of the film.  Obviously.  During the gulag scenes (which take up a sizeable portion of the film) it's easy to let your mind wander to the letters written by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot about her experiences inside a Siberian prison camp.  While these scenes are lighthearted there's a kernel of accuracy to them, and though there's (probably) less impromptu dance numbers and comedy slapstick inside a real gulag, the casual sadism that Kermit endures probably isn't a million miles from reality.

Kermit & co in the gulag.
These sequences are intercut with images of London, the glittering buildings of the City carefully framed in the background of shots.  Bobin dissolves from one to the other in such a mannered way, that, as loopy as this sounds, I began to suspect he was drawing a pointed connection between the opulence of London and the human rights abuses of modern Russia. After all, it's the City that launders Putin's crony's money - even seeking exemption from current economic sanctions.  The main plot is Russian criminals seeking to seize the symbolic heart of the British nation! Am I reading too much into this?  Is Muppets Most Wanted really an subtle indictment of Putin's Russia?  Ordinarily I'd think not, but then I remember the last Muppets movie was pilloried in the right-wing media for criticising the oil industry and I wonder...

Vladimir Putin aside, Muppets Most Wanted is really really good (whether you buy the geopolitical allegory or not).  You can't really go wrong with this one. Great gags, great songs, great Muppets.  


Muppets Most Wanted is on general release from 28 March

Friday, March 21, 2014

FEMME:SKIN at the Stratford Circus, 20th March 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Forget Bunker Hill, Waterloo and Hastings: the important battles these days take place in the amorphous land of ideology. This is a war between old gods and the modern world and one of the fiercest fights is for the female body. As the traditional battleground is cratered, scarred and deformed by the treads of tanks and the boom of mortar fire, so 'woman' is pressured to be pumped full of silicon, shrunken into emaciated waifdom or simply denied reproductive autonomy.  This is a war of ideas, both sides enviously eyeing each other's territory and engaged in myriad skirmishes.

FEMME:SKIN, a new exhibition in Stratford curated by Beth Watton, aims to chart some of the contours this war.  In the public area of the Stratford Circus she's assembled an array of artists working within multiple disciplines, all of whom with something to say about "the female body as a political and performative site".  The Stratford Circus is a pretty interesting place for an exhibition - the gallery area acting as a thoroughfare and all purpose cafe rather than being particularly devoted to art. 

Placard from Armpits4August
Down on the ground floor there's space devoted to the Armpits4August campaigning group - who advocate women going unshaven over August. There's a neat can-do arts and crafts roughness to what's displayed - home-made placards read "VENUS WITH FUR" and "HAIRY FEMINIST" - all bearing creases and scuffs from being waved at various demos. Interestingly, rather than being framed or behind glass, they're bulldog clipped to the wall. One of my pet peeves is the fetishisation of protest art - taking something scruffy and vibrant and preserving it in aspic. But this material is still very much alive, ready to be plucked from the wall and used as a tool for change rather than something to merely be gawped at.

Paige Bradley - Americana
Up a floor we see the work of Paige Bradley, a multidisciplinary artist from California.  Her sketches somehow show the body without the body present, soft pencil lines suggesting a ghostly geometric motion. It's as if the imperfect body has evaporated away, leaving only the purity of action and consequences. The same can't be said for her impressively fleshy Americana. In glowing earth tones a woman lies in a loose cruciform, trapped within red, white and blue blocks.  There's a satisfying tactility, the contours of her body shaded in yellows, oranges and light pinks giving the impression that she's the source of light within the scene.  Though the natural reading is to see it as a figure lying on her back the abstract backdrop gives a dislocating gravity, a woman floating in an expanse of patriotic fervour; a pout of boredom on her lips, an insouciant flicker in her eyes.

Following the walls around you're lead through a panoply of different ideas and interpretations of the female mind and body, both in abstract and physical terms.  One of my favourite pieces is above (which I've just learned is by Phil Fisk and not actually a part of FEMME:SKIN whoops). A  woman in a cleaning tabard arches her back in ecstasy, howling through a mist of cleaning fluid. Low-paid, low-status workers like these fade into invisibility - they're in our offices and shops before we even lift our sleepy heads from the pillow. They clean up our shit and vanish - the only evidence they were ever there a faint smell of sweet citrus.  This work places them in the spotlight, showing a dance that knots together elements of ritual, pole-dancing and ballet into a one action that underlines the power of femininity even within conformity, routine and minimum wage drudgery.

But of all these pieces, my favourite thing in the exhibition is Irina Shengelia's Little Remains.  Here we see brunette hair extensions, pigtails and ponytails emerging from within pictureframes, partnered with a virginally white slip that resembles a baptismal dress and white roses.  The title here, Little Remains has a dual meanings, abandoned objects of childhood and unnatural tragic death - remains in the bodily sense of the word.

Irina Shengelia - Little Remains
The British tabloid media is at its worst when it gets a sniff of the murder of a young girl. The front pages whip up a whirlwind of sensational eroticisation, pruriently obsessing over on the innocence and virginity of the dead girl: reducing her from person to a collection of cliches and idealised stereotypes. The most obvious example is Madeleine McCann, immortalised as the absent idea of 'Our Maddie', the reality of the missing person irrelevant under a teetering pile of cliches, wishful thinking, projections and complicated ideas of what a child really means to us. In symbolic terms she, and other missing girls, have been transmuted from person to idea. For me this work is a representation of this process in action, the depersonalised that make up the stereotypical 'girl' frozen in time like pinned butterflies behind glass - the reality of the person underneath all this forever absent.

It's great to see exhibitions like this taking place in public spaces. All too often work of this kind is relegated to the walls of galleries, viewed only by an elite few and appreciated by an even smaller subsection of them.  Here, with a steady trickle of people in and out of the space they'll have room to breathe and be noticed. There's much more here than I've described too. Check it out!

FEMME:SKIN is at the Stratford Circus, E15 1BX until 23rd April 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

'Back to the Garden' (2013) directed by Jon Sanders

Thursday, March 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Back to the Garden is a serious test of cinematic patience with scant reward at the end.  This micro-budget drama is so austere and so deliberately paced that Sanders seems to be daring his audience to keep paying attention.  A film being boring isn't necessarily a death knell for its quality, on a masochistic level I enjoy films like Jeanne Dielman, Satantango or Wavelength - films where for long periods nothing much happens.  Back to the Garden comes from a similar kind of place; slamming on the brakes and forcing you through excruciatingly dialogue scenes.

The plot is essentially an English The Big Chill doped up on valium.  A man has unexpectedly died and his friends gather in a secluded house to scatter his ashes in the garden.  The group is white, middle-class and obviously reasonably financially secure; yet each is experiencing their own subtle depressions, the death of their friend dredging up dormant fears of mortality and what they're doing in life.

What this entails is long still shot after long still shot of two characters talking in a rather normal garden.  The end credits inform us that the dialogue is improvised, so conversations meander and drift, often dancing around what they really want to say for minutes on end before whoever's speaking confesses what's on their mind.  This makes up perhaps 90% of the film; so if faintly miserable middle-aged people mumbling in gardens is what cinematically turns you on you're going to be in hog's heaven.

As for me, much of this film was about as interesting as paint drying. Even taking into account the miniscule budget, visually this really isn't up to much. There's the odd artfully composed shot, yet they're spoiled by digital photography that suffers from very noticeable interlacing problems: meaning straight lines suffer from 'jaggy' edges.  This makes the film look far cheaper than it should, often resembling the cheap and nasty look of 90s television.  (Although if this interlacing was merely a problem on the version screened please comment and tell me.)

I could overlook all that if the film was a powerhouse showcase of acting talent, but it's not. For the most part these performances are competently alright but there's nothing here that's going to set the world on fire.  These rather thankless roles require the actors to behave like they've been shot with tranquilliser darts, slowly moping their way from long shot to long shot in an Eeyorish daze.  There are brief moments where glimmers of passion poke through the surface of this stagnant pond - moments you grab onto like a drowning man clutching a life ring - but they're fleeting and quickly pass.

That said, there is one notable highlight among this troupe; Bob Goody's Jack.  In a film with Death hovering just above proceedings the cast have mostly become corpselike in response. It's only Goody as Jack who provides anything close to a compelling character, enjoyably bumbling his way through a doomed, unrequited love affair and pondering over whether there's any point continuing his marriage.  Of the the cast it's Goody that seems most at ease with the improvisatory style of the film, able to naturally digress a bit in a pretty seamless way.

Another one for the 'positives' column is the nice score by Douglas Finch.  The film actually begins pretty promisingly, with some Terrence Malicky shots of stars, rivers and spiderwebs all underscored by a beautiful piano led score.  Throughout the film there's the odd musical interlude between scenes; these short bursts of music doing a far clearer job of conveying mood and tone than the muddled dialogue ever does.  Though I was eagerly awaiting the credits to roll so I could find something more interesting to do, I stuck around for them purely because some twinkling stars and Finch's score was much more compelling than nearly all of the film that preceded it.

What's perhaps most frustrating is that in the middle of the final sequence the film briefly does something actually interesting.  Up to the end of the film there's been no obvious reason why the film wouldn't work as a 'Play of the Day' on Radio 4, yet for one brief moment there's a subtle bending of space and time that is easily the best bit of the film.  Even more impressively this goes by completely unremarked, Sanders trusting that his audience is paying sufficient attention to pick up on it.

Despite these few slivers of positivity this film, quite simply, is boring. Even with a mercifully short 90 minute run time it drags on and on, exploring the inner-world of characters we're given no reason to care about.  Stylistically Sanders approaches Dogme 95 levels of filmic austerity; the improvised dialogue, dodgy technical aspects and really low-key story leading me to suspect that Sanders is attempting to capture some kind of 'reality' on screen, a filmic world shorn of mainstream narrative pretensions. On that front I suppose he's succeeded because Back to the Garden absolutely captures what it's like to be trapped at a crap party with a load of miserable people.  


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Starred Up' (2014) directed by David McKenzie

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Prison is a fascinating place in cinema. Good directors use it as a microcosm  - a hermetically sealed bottle where frustrations, resentments and violence that bubble under the society's surface come to the forth, usually in a torrent of swearing and brutality.  My genre favourites are Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Alan Clarke's Scum - all of which are politically and psychologically incisive.  It's the last of these that Starred Up most resembles: both films are gritty, foul-mouthed and vicious.

We follow the young Eric (Jack O'Connell) as he's "starred up", the slang term for a prisoner moved from a young offenders institution to regular prison. Eric is not a very nice man. He's Alexander DeLarge crossed with Charles Bronson; capable of dishing out and receiving beatings, taking a psychotically masochistic pleasure in causing as much havoc as he can. Almost from the moment he's placed in his cell he lashes out, fracturing another inmates skull, fighting off body-armoured prison guards and threatening to chew off a guard's testicles. It's difficult to say he's a "hero" (or even an antihero really) we don't like him, we don't want to see him succeed and we certainly don't want to see him released or escape.

Eric is a blunt instrument but he's at least honest about it. Less so are the complex tangle of interpersonal relationships between guards and inmates - his arrival throwing a wrench into the smoothly running machine of low-level drug-dealing, casual violence and entrenched social hierarchies.  Prime among his difficulties is that he's incarcerated on the same wing as his Dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Though Neville's been in prison for most of Eric's life the two are clearly cut from the same cloth - both men quick to raise their fists. Further dramatic fuel is added by the intervention of Oliver (Rupert Friend), an anger management counsellor who runs a group for violent offenders. Oliver is a bit of a puzzle, mixing a weird class guilt with an affinity with these men - the only non-inmate who genuinely seems to care about rehabilitation.

I visit prisons in a professional capacity and though this obviously don't give me any insight into what it's like to live there - I can at least say that McKenzie captures the dreary Victorian institutional squalor perfectly. Paint peels from the walls, the bars shabbily wear their 11th coat of paint since they were installed, the markings on the floors bear the scuff-marks of ten thousand miserably plodding prison-issue shoes. You can almost smell the disinfectant (with the faintest whiff of piss and vomit underneath) that characterises life  at her Majesty's pleasure. Perhaps it's not really surprising that the location looks so realistically downbeat - the film was shot in the disused Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast - once known as "Europe's Alcatraz".  

But you can't just shoot inside a prison and expect the location to do all the heavy lifting. McKenzie knows this, exploring the space with an immaculately minimalist style, the most efficient weapons in his arsenal long tracking shots along the cell block and repeated closeups of eyes glaring through slats in the doors. This precise and controlled style reflects the carefully ordered institutional world these men live in. The repeated close-ups induce a state of claustrophobia - subtly giving the audience a taste of what it's like to be stuck in a place like this.

The excellent sound design also contributes, the omnipresent sounds of metal doors slamming shut, burbling conversation, faint abuse and alarms ringing almost down the corridor. It was so expertly done that in an early scene I thought one of the alarms we were hearing was the cinema fire alarm going off.  The violence also has a visceral *thwak* to the blows - when these men hit each other you hear the brittle crack of bones breaking and flesh thudding against the floor.

Technically its quite marvellous, as are practically all the performances, particularly O'Connell in the lead role.  So what does all this add up to?  Writer Jonathan Asser (who I gather the counsellor character is a dramatised version of) clearly has something to say about the Her Majesty's Prison Service, but, amidst the beatings, blood and broken bones, what is it? 

Prior to Eric's arrival in the prison, life seems to exist in a state of uneasy peace.  The warden conspiring with high-status inmates to get drugs into the prison, thus allowing a miniature gangland to develop. The pecking order this creates means everyone knows their place, so life goes on under a cycle of addiction, fear and respect. Eric's arrival throws everyone for a loop - he doesn't respect any of this, battling against every entrenched power structure he encounters - be it the prison itself or the organised crime within it. Like a seed introduced to a saturated solution his behaviour crystallises the hidden violence that keeps the whole system going.

Underneath all this lies the question as to whether prison should be a place for punishment or rehabilitation - the film firmly coming down on the side of rehabilitation, or at bare minimum behavioural management. What Starred Up ultimately concludes is that the prison system is institutionally violent and that the behaviour of the inmates is symptomatic of the cruelty of the system they find themselves inside. While there's a few good eggs within the ranks of the guards, they primarily exist to torment the prisoners - even to murder them if they cause a big enough stink.

It's a pretty cynical outlook, though one with undeniable roots in reality. You only have to look at how many suspicious deaths in police custody are ruled as suicides to realise how scarily easy it would be for guards to 'arrange' for them to happen.  In the cinema I was in this clearly touched a nerve; one woman spontaneously yelling out "fuck the system!" during a particularly unpleasant sequence.  

Noble though revealing this is there's an uneasy sensationalism to the film. Though obviously intended to condemn the violence is both cathartic and brutally satisfying to watch. Like Romans watching gladiators go at it we eagerly await the next clash of bone and muscle, taking homoerotic pleasure in watching "well 'ard" men go at each other.  These opposing forced make Starred Up is a difficult film to classify, ultimately lying somewhere between socially conscious messaging and lurid exploitation - but though it often falters this is never less than compelling, smart cinema.


Starred Up is on general release from March 21st

Friday, March 14, 2014

'Particle Waves' by Kian-Peng Ong at arebyte Gallery, 13th March 2014

Friday, March 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

290 miles northwest of San Francisco, way out in the California desert lies The Hat Creek Radio Observatory. Across the scrub, among the tumbling tumbleweeds sit 42 radio telescopes, their huge faces gazing up into the universe carefully listening for the song of the stars.  These are the cosmic ears of planet Earth, the sieve through which we sift the tangle of interstellar radio waves and so learn about our place in the universe.  It was this array that immediately leapt to mind when I walked into the arebyte Gallery; Kian-Peng Ong's Particle Waves installation swaying like seaweed, emitting the soothing sound of wind, water and space.

Ong is a Singaporean artist with a multi-disciplinary focus. Lauded by art world luminaries in Japan, China and Singapore and chosen for inclusion in numerous art festivals he's the very model of an international artist, exhibiting in Brazil, the USA, Slovenia and South Korea. This is his first time exhibiting in London; or for that matter even being in London - so I'd imagine he wants to make a good first impression on us.

Particle Waves consists of twelve small mechanical sculptures, a small moving arm that holds aloft a clear plastic bowl that contains a hundred or so tiny metal balls.  As the arm moves the bowl tilts and the balls shift inside. Cumulatively they make a rushing sound, like a calm sea lapping the surface of a beach, wind rustling through leaves or a gentle hum of radio static.  Wires connect these sculptures to an exposed 'brain'; a circuit board bristling with tiny wires that governs their movement. Though everything is roughly in synchronicity each dances to their own tune, the work in constant motion as the electrical signals ripple out from the brain, the bowls tilting in subtly different ways giving the illusion of a kind.

It's a very chilled out installation; you see people around the gallery sitting around with their eyes closed, drinking in the soothing sounds of nature, a faint smile tickling the corners of their mouths as they picture a relaxing seascape, perhaps dredging up some long forgotten childhood memories of sandcastles, ice cream and sunbleached blue skies. It's easy to get lost in a meditative daze, something about the rolling, swaying analogue fuzz tickling a primal part of the brain - people instinctively taking pleasure in this sound in the same way a cat can't help purring as it's stroked.

But there's a perversity at the heart of this. arebyte is decked out in pretty typical gallery fashion: concrete floors and plain white walls, a cold minimalism designed to focus attention on what's inside.  The gallery itself sits at the centre of the run-down industrial labyrinth of Hackney Wick, the asphalt and cement of London stretching out for miles and miles in all directions. The sculpture itself is consciously mechanical, turning gears, exposed circuits and twisted wires underlining it as artificial, industrial and fake.

So Ong has brought a slice of the natural world into this cold, urban space - not recreating it with water and sand, but with technology and programming. There's a subtle satirical element here; an argument that we're so divorced from the rhythms of nature that we're reduced to appreciating an artificial simulation.  There's a smidge of Baudrillardian philosophy within this; the installation seeks to "bring an outdoors natural experience indoors" but makes no bones about it's own artificiality.  We clearly see the technological methods by which the sonic illusion of a seascape is created, and yet nobody seems to care. And why would we?

the 'brain'
To really experience the sound of waves crashing against a beach would involve stimulation of all of your senses: the vast blue sea stretching out to the horizon with white breakers lapping the beach, the sun beating down upon your skin, the sand scrunched up between your toes - even the faint tang of salt on your tongue.  By comparison, this simulation takes place in a sterile, climate-controlled and unnatural place, and yet we can't deny the vivid, deeply felt pleasure that it creates. Again I think of the radio telescopes that the piece visually recalls; science and art both trying to make some sense of this crazy, jumbled up world.

A lovely installation; food for ear, eye and brain, and one that slots in perfectly with arebyte's current exploration of how the squishy organic chaos of the human anatomy intersects with the cool digital precision of technology. As we become more intertwined and attached to the devices we surround ourselves with do we become more digital, or do they become more analogue?  Ong's piece stands at this crossroads, the digital instructions and construction of the work rubbing up against the 'natural' analogue sound it creates.  Well worth a look.

Particle Waves is at arebyte Gallery from 11th March - 10th April, Tue-Sat 12-6pm.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

'Need for Speed' (2014) directed by Scott Waugh

Thursday, March 13, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Cars are boring, complicated and dangerous death-machines. But on screen they become something more. The automobile and cinema have grown up alongside each other, and when a little petrol gets mixed in with your celluloid the results are often thrilling. I'm thinking of the classics, Bullitt, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point or modern greats like Drive and Rush  - lean and muscular cinema made by people with oil-stained fingers. Need for Speed wants to hearken back to this golden age; ditching the CG of the Fast and the Furious series and showing us real cars rumbling around real cities, driven by real people. 

So there's a good, working class car driver and an evil rich car driver.  The evil car driver cheats, kills the good car driver's friend and then frames him.  Now that he's out of prison the good car driver must avenge this crime the only way he knows how: by driving cars.  This is less a story and more an excuse to have a lot of driving.  It's to the film's credit that most of the film's run-time is spent behind the wheel, as we watch the drivers race to the race, then race the race.

The lead of a car film shares many traits with the kung-fu hero; both are in possession of an innate talent that needs to be honed through discipline and trials.  Essentially, to win the big race/fight the big baddie the hero must prove their worth by overcoming their self-doubt. This is standard Campbellian stuff but the car genre has it's unique wrinkles; some of which Need for Speed 'gets' and some it blithely ignores.

They picked the weirdest press promo stills for this film. Here's a blue car I guess.
Prime among these is a straight up spiritual connection between man and machine. A car movie hero is only complete when sitting behind the wheel of his car - which becomes an extension of his mind and body. While he's sat in that driver's seat, the boundaries of the character extend outwards to the hubcaps and bumper.  As his heart beats, so the engine throbs, the deep bass boom of his engine (the hero always has the coolest sounding engine) signifying the car hero's spiritual superiority over his rivals.  Ideally he will have built the car himself and we'll have seen him slathered in swarfega as if he's just delivered a bouncing automotive baby.

On paper Need for Speed does this.  The hero is well-regarded as a top mechanic; though we only briefly see him working on a car - and notably not his car.  The hero car of the film is a modified blue and white sports car of some kind (I think it's referred to as a 'mustang') that's enormously fetishised by all that encounter it. It's this car that the hero seems to have some kind of spiritual connection with; able to make it reach speeds and execute maneuvers that no other driver can.  But we never actually see him build it, the film squandering the chance for that crucial montage in a disarming cut from car as chassis to gleaming and finished end product.

Despite this early missed opportunity the relationship between man and car does develop as they rocket across the USA on their way the big race.  Both car and man get a few dings, prove their mettle in tough scrapes and get nicely grimed up - then just as the car has developed a personality and bonded to its driver it's unceremoniously disposed of!  In the last race the hero doesn't only drive a new car - he drives the villain's car!

Another great still from the press kit.  I can't even tell what colour this car is.
Dammit Need for Speed, this isn't how the genre works.  You can't just plop the hero in a car coded as murderously evil and expect us to get emotionally invested in this final race.  It's like Luke Skywalker showing up for the big Death Star brou-ha-ha in a TIE Fighter!  It's like Batman infiltrating the Joker's hideout while dressed as a clown!  It's like James Bond spending an entire film stroking a white fluffy cat!  It's just not on!

All that said, it's doubtful that Need for Speed could ever have worked with Aaron Paul cast as the lead. He's just awful; looking disarmingly like Dec from Ant and Dec and speaking in the kind of deep 'gargles with gravel' voice that you usually only hear from people trying to take the piss out of action heroes.  Though he's obviously worked out quite a bit for the role, he doesn't have a chin at all.  Given that by necessity the car hero will be shot in profile from the passenger's seat, this is a critical flaw.  The pinnacle of this catastrophe is the scene where he sees his friend in a burning wreck; Paul marching into straight into Pythonesque over-acting, yelling "Nooooooo!" over and over again.  I think at one point he may even have sunk to his knees and waved his fist at the sky!  

Nobody really comes out this smelling of roses, though Imogen Poots at least seems to recognise this dialogue as utterly ridiculous.  Michael Keaton, who it's always nice to see,  even in trash like this, comes out similarly unscathed - though largely because his character never interacts with anyone and is confined to one room.  

I guess there's some worth in the car action, at bare minimum there's a palpable physical sensation of motion and speed - but without the emotional and spiritual underpinning that's critical for a successful car film it's all so much antiseptic. If you're into this stuff you may as well just watch Top Gear or something, or preferably a better, purer and more sincere car movie.


Need for Speed is on general release now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

'The Machine' (2014) directed by Caradog W. James

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Machine is has an rather cheesy script, some slightly iffy performances and a rather Torchwood vibe to proceedings.  But then I enjoy cheese, and I also enjoy ambition in film-making. So it's deeply refreshing to see a relatively low-budget indie film punching way above its weight, and not only that, doing it with style.  

Set during a future cold war between the West and China, The Machine is almost entirely set within an underground weapons research laboratory somewhere in Wales. Within they're developing the technology with the potential to turn the tide: implants for brain-damaged veterans, bionic prosthetics to replace severed limbs and artificial, problem-solving intelligence. But these are only facets of a larger, more complex project; an endeavour to create an autonomous android super-assassin - able to infiltrate the enemy and decapitate the leadership in one fell swoop.

^ a good shot
The lead researcher is the grumpy Vincent (Toby Stephens), whose young daughter has one of those tragic movie medical conditions whose symptoms only kick in at conveniently dramatic times.  He's trying to discover an intelligence that can beat the Turing Test, and finally finds it in Ava (Caity Lotz) - the developer of an intelligent, questioning and curious programme that's able to teach itself through conversation.  For a while everything's hunky-dory, and just perhaps there's a hint of romance in the air between these two two robot researchers...

Then some Chinese guy stabs Ava to death.  Vincent, feeling pretty guilty about the whole affair, decides to model the new robot's face and mannerisms on Ava - resulting in a very strong, very smart, very attractive and very naked killer robot. The rest of the film ponders pretty well trod philosophical ground as Vincent struggles as to whether to consider Ava a person or a thing, while the weapons researchers grow impatient as to whether this friendly, kind and personable thing they've created is ever going to shape up into the brutal murder machine they've been promised.

^ another good shot
There's next to nothing in The Machine that's new.  The film wears its influences on its sleeve; a jigsaw of bits of Blade Runner, RoboCop, Universal Soldier, The Terminator and I, Robot. But there's a difference between plagiarism and homage and this film largely falls on the right side. Tiny little references from classics abound; the way the cyborg soldier's eyes light up in the darkness; the men learning to use robotic limbs; the distress of a robot being lobotomised; or the simply the score, which doesn't so much reference Vangelis' iconic Blade Runner synths as transplant them wholesale into the film. I guess if you're going to steal, you may as well steal from the best.

It's easy enough to forgive this ransacking of the robot sci-fi genre though - because what's assembled out of these parts is worthwhile stuff.  Nicolai Bruel's cinematography is outstanding - every set-up considered and balanced, often straying into the genuinely beautiful.  Similarly impressive are the seamless visual effects, which to my eyes to take cues from the work of Chris Cunningham. The bionics and robotics in the film all pulse a deep red, glowing underneath the artificial skin around them.  There's no practical reason for this within the film (and maybe making your undercover robot glow bright red isn't such a smart move), but it looks amazing - a visually encoding the power, emotion and vibrancy going on within these creations.  When all this comes together it's stunning - a particular stand-out a scene where Ava dances on top of a thin sheet of water. In a film where damn near everyone is downtrodden, depressed and living a rather dank existence this moment is a ray of sunshine and beauty: a cocktail of perfect CGI, great choreography and dynamic camera movements.

^ basically what I'm saying is that this film looks good
Obvious effort has gone into making this film look as good as possible under a presumably limited budget - though one upshot is that this is one of the darkest military facilities I've ever seen on film.  Presumably the global recession in the film has curtailed the purchase of lightbulbs, because trying to get any work done in a series of gloomy rooms can't be good either for productivity or for your mental state. This underlighting gets a little annoying, though it's mitigated by the fact that lighting a film like this keeps the set dressing budget low, smoothing over any rough edges.

There's a lot to admire here, though at its heart The Machine is ultimately a good-looking and smart b-movie - territory that comes with its expected downsides.  Caity Lotz is the obvious stand-out performance, both as the optimistic and curious researcher Ava and her robot doppelganger. In the latter half of the film she's impressively controlled physically, making us believe in a creation that's very definitely not human, but neither completely artificial.  Unfortunately she's by far the stand-out, with Toby Stephen's scientist hero neither particularly likeable nor convincing as a genius roboticist.  Worse is Denis Lawson's chief baddie Thomson - the administrator of the facility.  He's mired firmly in one-dimensional villainy; acting like an evil prick for no obvious rhyme or reason.

These criticisms aside, The Machine is a hard film to dislike. At a shade under 90 minutes it's admirably concise, never wasting our time with any extraneous characters or subplots, keeping a laser focus on the central narrative at all times.  It's an ambitious endeavour to produce an indie film with this much VFX - let alone to end up with an end product this stylish. So, though it approaches the genre with a kleptomaniac's eye, The Machine is one of the best British science fiction films I've seen in a long time and more than deserves to find its audience.


The Machine is released in cinemas on March 21st, and on DVD/Blu-Ray 31st March 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

'The Zero Theorem' (2014) directed by Terry Gilliam

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A new Terry Gilliam film? A twisty-turny philosophical acid-trip set in an insane future metropolis? Starring Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Matt Damon and M√©lanie Thierry?  Get me a ticket already - no wait, get me five! With that directorial pedigree, a cast stocked with my acting heroes and a really intriguing trailer I figured this was as sure a sure cinematic bet as I could get.  

So it's with a sense of crushing disappointment and mild depression that I report that The Zero Theorem is a load of ugly, confusing bullshit.  It's probably a bad sign when, mid-way through a movie you realise you're straining every single neuron in an effort to enjoy something - and still finding it confusingly boring.  I wanted so much to enjoy this ambitious, intellectual, endlessly imaginative film, served with a bag full of good ideas, interesting visual flourishes and bizarre performances - but it all adds up to, well, zero.

Set in a future city that looks as if every single contemporary trend has been jacked up to 11, The Zero Theorem tells us the story of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a mentally ill savant living a reclusive life in a rotting church. Referring to himself throughout as 'we', Leth is morbid, fatalist and pessimistic - convinced that he and everyone around him is dying.  His principle obsession is waiting for a phone-call that never comes, a phone call that will apparently give him some kind of spiritual salvation. The only reason he ever leaves his sanctuary is for work; crunching "entities" for typically dystopian 'does everything' megacorp Mancom.

If only the entire film was this interesting...
Pleading with his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to be able to work from home, Qohen is brough to the attention of the camouflaged and vaguely inhuman 'Management' (Matt Damon) - a combination of Half-Life's G-Man and The Matrix's Agent Smith.  He tasks him with solving the titular zero theorem, an equation that will prove that zero equals 100% and apparently therefore that all life is ultimately pointless. This impossible task has driven everyone who's tried to solve it insane, though perhaps Qohen's existing insanity means he has a leg-up on them.  The rest of the film is him slowly going (more) bonkers in his church, being visited by a gallery of grotesques who may or not may not be there to help him.

What's most frustrating is that Gilliam's futuropolis looks amazing - for the brief moments we get to experience it.  It shares a lot of DNA with Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan and STUDIO4°C's Tekkonkinkreet - though with keenly idiosyncratic Gilliam twists. The city is a blizzard of animated billboards, day-glo synthetic fashion and buzzing futureslang. Everything is extrapolated from modern trends; citizens have iPads all but surgically attached to their hands, infomercials advise you to join 'The Church of Batman the Redeemer' and work appears to be an abstracted videogame with little obvious point.

This is all in the first ten minutes and it's dazzling stuff - so dense and overpowering that it gives you a sense of dislocation, making you feel 'old' and out of place in this sugar dosed, hyper energetic, jam-packed cityscape. At this point I settled into my seat happily, eager for Gilliam to explore the exciting future he'd so deftly sketched.  But then it's over - at least 90 minutes of remaining runtime set in one static location.  It's an interesting, detailed location granted, but it's entirely shot with nauseating dutch angles and neon lighting. Claustrophobia soon sets in and the film becomes an unrewarding, unpleasant grind.

Without the distraction of the visuals you soon realise that these characters are cyphers; caricatures that spout metaphysical bullshit so overwritten that it'd make the Wachowski's blush.  There is nobody remotely relatable in the entire film and the mental tics of our protagonist quickly become deeply annoying.  Waltz, who prior to this had an aura of actorly invincibility, is completely at sea, given an utterly thankless role without any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.  The rest of the cast seems similarly lost, going through the motions with a vague sense of confusion and probably trusting that everything's going to work out in the edit. It doesn't. 

On paper this is very much my kind of film.  I always prefer an ambitious failure to a safe success - a preference that makes Gilliam my kinda director. But it's difficult to detect exactly what ambitions this film has. In writing about film it's often useful to try and work out what the original spark of inspiration that gave rise to the film was. Here I genuinely can't tell - is it a parable for dealing with loneliness and isolation through technology? A satire of our already information dense world? Perhaps something that posits technology as a modern religion? All at once? These strands and many more all run through the bloodstream of the film yet none of them are even close to being fully realised ideas.

In the end all you're really left with is some interesting production design and the sense that whatever this is, it's at minimum an individual vision. Granted it's a deeply frustrating and aggressively unfriendly vision (and one with an impressive disregard for commercial viability) but it is, I guess, the film an artist wanted to make.  Unfortunately there's so much wrong here that I can't even classify The Zero Theorem as a noble failure.  It's just a failure. And that's a damn shame.


The Zero Theorem is on general release from March 14th.

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