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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Bad Neighbours' (2014) directed by Nicholas Stoller

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The frat house genre spreads its tentacles throughout comedy like a pissed up, stoned octopus. From Porky's and Animal House on upwards the genre works within very narrowly defined boundaries that mean every frat film has basically the same plot - yet people never seem to get sick of them.  That ur-frat-plot revolves around three crazy parties.  The first party creates problems the boys have to overcome, the second exacerbates those problems and the third resolves them.  Along the way someone will puke, you'll get to see some tits and that one nerdy guy will either take drugs or shag a fat girl (preferably both for max laffs).  

Bad Neighbours follows this template to the letter, though slightly distinguishes itself by framing the frat house from the perspective of two thirty-ish parents living next door.  They are Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), the two trying to juggle caring for their year old daughter with continuing the mildly hedonistic lifestyle they enjoyed in their twenties. Unfortunately they're losing the battle: defeated by their responsibilities towards the baby and the subsequent fact that they're knackered all day.

The situation is kicked up a notch when a party-crazy frat house moves in next door. These guys are your stereotypical bro types, all shades, tans and popped collars. Their leader is Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), sporting a physique so defined that Rogen memorably describes it as looking "like an arrow pointing to your cock". As soon as they're neighbours the frat boys launch into the first of a series of titanic house parties; replete with bass drops, shrooms, weed and people drinking out of bright red cups.  

Mac and Kelly don't want to seem like old duffers so they join in, but soon the constant bass rattling through their house gets to them.  They call the cops with a noise complaint, and from this point the two houses are feuding; Mac and Kelly conniving and plotting to get the frat kicked out of the college and the frat planning like, totally the biggest and most craziest party EVER.

There are worse setups for a comedy and by and large Bad Neighbours goes about its task as concise and professional a manner as possible. Make no bones about it, the film has its fair share of big laughs, though through much of it everyone involved appears to be on autopilotes.  Seth Rogen is, once more, playing pretty much himself.  I suppose you don't hire Seth Rogen and expect Daniel Day-Lewis, but he's hardly being stretched with material like this.  Granted, he does this schtick well enough, but to see him guzzling magic mushrooms and dealing with responsibility begins to feel increasingly like a retread of Knocked Up.

Rose Byrne fares a bit better, sinking her teeth into a stereotype-defying role.  She's smart, fun and angry in ways that female characters aren't generally allowed to be, at one point angrily pointing out that she's got every right to be just as irresponsible as any man. One thing I like most about Byrne is that she's utterly unafraid of making herself look completely ridiculous - possibly the most memorable scene of the film is her clutching her breasts in pain and demanding that a terrified Seth Rogen "milk me now, dammit!".

Do you find this picture of Seth Rogen having sex with some topiary funny?  If yes then you will probably enjoy this film.
By comparison the frat boys over the road are pretty much two-dimensional. Zac Efron is a touch too old to be playing a teenager and to be honest, given his sturdy dramatic performances in Parkland and The Paperboy it's a little disappointing seeing him regress to boneheaded comedy.  Nobody else really stands out among the students, save for the bizarre and unexpected appearance of Craig Roberts as put-upon pledgee 'Assjuice'.  What on earth is the unassuming, introverted star of Submarine and Benny & Jolene doing here? He gamely shoots for an American accent (by way of Caerphilly) and does a decent enough job, but I hope this isn't the kind of role he's going for to try and 'break America'.

That aside, Bad Neighbours is a decent enough comedy film - with at least enough intelligence to pin down some fairly universal concepts. Mac and Kelly's desire to stay young and fun while also trying their hardest to be responsible parents is the kind of thing that everyone in their early 30s has to deal with. Crucially we see that the wild, UV drenched and drug saturated parties - depicted as a kind of low-rent, toned down version of Spring Breakers - are fun.  But we also empathise with the annoyance of having bass booming through the bedroom walls and disturbing your child night after night. This tug of war going on their heads makes a huge amount of sense; and when they're finally driven to calling the police on the frat house we experience a touch of their guilt at becoming 'the man'.

But these positive things are balanced against a bunch of stuff that doesn't really work.  The film slides into cartoon territory towards the end, with a series of low-key fight scenes that don't really work, a tedious reliance on endless cutaways to a cute baby's reaction to things and a pat emotional climax that reeks of a studio-mandated reshoot.

As far as mainstream US comedies go Bad Neighbours isn't scraping the bottom of the barrel, but you can see the bottom from here.  It's relatively amusing and rarely hilarious, with a workmanlike double act from Rogen and Byrne giving it a solid core.  Unfortunately this plays it safe every chance it can get; the end result being vaguely okay but way too cookie-cutter and formulaic to actually recommend.  You'll be forgetting it as soon as the credits roll.


Bad Neighbours is on general release from May 3rd

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Pompeii' (2014) directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Throw Gladiator and Titanic into a blender and Pompeii would trickle out of the nozzle. This film from Paul W.S. Anderson (doomed to be forever known as 'the other Paul Anderson') is a largely moronic slice of pure-grade cheese, boasting a paper-thin romance that'd make Mills & Boon blush, antiseptic action sequences and Emmerichesque destructo-porn only faintly spoiled by the knowledge that this particular disaster actually happened.  But it's not all bad!

The volcano disaster movie subgenre has lain dormant for the last 15 years or so, the equally underwhelming 1997 doubleheader of Volcano and Dante's Peak having failed to set box offices ablaze.  Bolted onto the disaster flick template are large portions of Gladiator; a young celt Milo (Kit Harington) who hates the Roman Empire making a name for himself in arena combat and subsequently being transported to the big city to prove himself; and Titanic. Colliding with that is Rose's plight from Titanic in the form of Cassia (Emily Browning) a young rich girl who's sick of the trappings of her class falling head over heels for a sexy bit of Celtic rough.  This forbidden love would struggle to bloom under normal circumstances, let alone when there's burning lava bombs plummeting from the sky and gigantic tidal waves tearing through the city.  But hey, if it worked for James Cameron...

Pompeii ultimately turns out to be a complete load of cheesy bullshit, but that's not necessarily the kiss of death.  Cheesy bullshit, ladled out with the right amount of sincerity and gusto, can be just the ticket if you want a lazy, undemanding, dumb sort of cinema experience.  And fortunately Anderson, with his track record of the Resident Evil franchise and a smattering of enjoyably dopey B-movies like Mortal Kombat and Death Race, is more than in possession of the directorial skills to make this cheesy bullshit the best cheesy bullshit it can be.

Kit Harington ain't no Russell Crowe that's for damn sure.
That's not to say there's not a ton of things wrong with the film.  Most obvious is the utterly leaden romance that's supposedly the core of the film.  Kit Harington and Emily Browning are pretty dull when they're alone on screen, but together they form a black hole of charisma, with never the remotest glimmer of passion between them.  They're not helped by a dog of a script which has some bizarre ideas about how to set up a love story.  The weirdest is their first meeting, where Cassia falls for Milo on the basis that he can break a horse's neck with his bare hands (whatever floats your boat I guess...).  Beyond that the two barely get a chance to interact at all, meaning the romance never feels remotely moving.

The central romance being a stinker could have killed this film stone dead, but fortunately it's more than rescued by two excellent supporting performances from Kiefer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.  Sutherland, playing the villainous Senator Corvus, pulls out his best Jeremy Irons impression and goes to town with a whirlwind of smug smirks and archly raised eyebrows - if Romans had moustaches you can bet this guy would be twirling his.  At times it's like Sutherland is in a scenery chewing contest with the volcano; and honestly, the two come out about equal.

Sutherland nailing it.
Similarly ace is Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus, our hero's gladiator buddy.  Purely by dint of his natural charisma he's massively more compelling than the bland Harington.  Fortunately he gets a decent amount of time on screen, but this would have been a much more successful film with Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the hero.  He's also got far more chemistry with Harington than Emily Browning has, the one glimmer of actual sexiness a scene where the two topless gladiators rub each other's wounds down with wine!  Going full-bore homoerotic would also have the added bonus of making the erupting volcano a big fat throbbing visual metaphor.

The eruption is the 'money shot' of any volcano movie, and, like every member of the subgenre, a moment that's teased in multiple shots of character's looking suspiciously at dust falling from ceilings or plates clanking on a shelf.  When things do geologically kick off it's probably exactly as you imagine - oodles of tiny CG Romans getting squashed by columns, burnt by lava or swept away by raging seas.  Watching this entertaining carnage I felt a little curl of guilt in my belly, after all is it right to vicariously enjoy a simulation of other people's deaths - even if they were 2000 years ago?

Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus.  He should be the hero!  He's much more fun.
This gives rise to the one smart bit of film-making in Pompeii.  The focus of the big gladiatorial contest is a recreation of the the villain's greatest triumph - the annihilation of the hero's tribe.  As we've experienced this from the POV of our hero early in the film we instinctively find this distasteful, frowning at the amphitheatre audience baying for blood. These braying assholes are us - we're both getting our yuks from watching a bowdlerised, sanitised fictional account of historical misery.  It's moments like these when you suspect that Paul W.S. Anderson might not be quite as dumb as he's often made out to be.

It's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pompeii - enjoyment of it is largely predicated on your tolerance for cheese and by how much enjoyment you get from scenery-chewing camp performances. For me it just about strayed into guilty pleasure; the kind of film best enjoyed curled up under a blanket nursing a severe hangover on a Sunday afternoon, a pot of warm tea and a few packs of chocolate biscuits in front of you.  


Pompeii is on general release 30 April 2014.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

'Plastic' (2014) directed by Julian Gilbey

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Plastic is not a very good movie.  The dialogue is laughable, the performances are iffy, it's directed with as much verve as an insurance infomercial and plotwise it's about on par with an average episode of Hustle.  But it at least has the decency to be relatively quick and breezy and, at bare minimum, is enjoyable as trash.

Our heroes are four students making their way through uni with a combination of credit card fraud and low-level fencing. They are; Sam (Ed Speleers), the brainy one; Fordy (Will Poulter), the trustworthy one; Yatesey (Alfie Allen), the dickhead one; and Rafa (Sebastian De Souza), the gullible one.  Between them they run a pretty tight operation, working in tandem to clone cards, steal PINs, commit identity fraud, but online goods and sell them off to other students.  But then it all goes tits up. They piss off a German gangster (Thomas Kretschmann), who threatens to kill them unless they can get £2 million for him in just two weeks.  The film then takes a slight left turn from the dreary, overcast skies of the outskirts of London to Miami, where the gang, now with a blonde girl in tow, begin to plan a diamond heist to end all diamond heists.

For about the first third of the film my stomach was gradually sinking into the cushioned cinema seat.  These characters are eminently hateable, the film's efforts to get us to sympathise with them by having them moan about their post-university employment prospects falling utterly flat. Further mitigation is attempted by showing them ripping off rude, rich people, I guess in an attempt to view them as brave Robin Hood types.  Nope, they just seem a gaggle of arsehole-cheeky-joker-lads-banter archetypes who, let's face it, probably deserve that shallow grave in the woods they're being threatened with.

Those are child bearing lips.
The peripheral characters aren't much better. There's Frankie (Emma Rigby), who depressingly functions entirely as eye-candy for the guys to clash cocks over. She has next to zero involvement in the central plot, can't act worth a damn and is primarily there to walk around in a bikini behind a pair of pouty pneumatic lips - a panacea for the Zoo Magazine crowd the film is clearly targeted at.  The villains don't fare much better either; a collection of swarthy ethnic stereotypes that barely approach two dimensions, let alone three.

All that said, when the central heist plotline kicks into gear, the film settles into a groove that while familiar and rote, is at least competently executed.  Again, this is nothing you won't have seen before, but Gilbey does a decent job of laying out the plan, the marks and the stakes.  Then in classic heist film style it all goes tits up and everyone freaks out in a blur of double-crossing, flashing blue lights and gunfire.  Perhaps the main reason why the latter half of the film actually works is the presence of Graham McTavish as a gullible jewel merchant.  Performance-wise he's light-years ahead of everyone else in the film, and after all the painful 'banta' from the lads that sinks like a stone, it's nice to see someone actually being funny.

Alfie Allan is actually pretty good as a total arsehole.
Things also pick up when the guns come out of their holsters.  Gilbey may have skimped on the script, casting, soundtrack and well, damn near everything else in the film, but he's spared no expense when it comes to the squibs.  When people get shot in this film they explode in a stickily goopy shower of crimson, the impacts looking like someone is exploding jam doughnuts under the character's shirts.  These are the kind of effects that you usually only see in the finest 1980s VHS video nasties, big explosions of corn syrup blood rendered in exquisite, quasi-pornographic slow-motion.  A back to basics straightforward gun fight like this can go a long way towards redeeming the film.  Yeah, it's a shitty movie, but at least it has a good time rolling around in its shit.

Though the good things in the film are nowhere near enough compensation for all the bad, they go just far enough to make Plastic a difficult film to actually dislike. Honestly, I actually kind of appreciate it for only taking up 90 minutes of my time given the recent spate of 2 and a half hour stinkers clogging up multiplexes.  

Plastic's future has been pre-ordained: a short, unmemorable cinema run followed by it finding its true home, the end of aisle discount DVD bin in Asda, the actors faces on the DVD cover unceremoniously obscured by a neon yellow sticker: "Only £2.99!!!!".  Here the film will come into its own.  Nestled next to myriad other low-budget/no brains straight-to-DVD detritus, Plastic will wind up looking pretty good by comparison.  Not a hidden gem by any means, but as cinematic trash goes at least it's vaguely competent trash.


Plastic is on general release from April 30th.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

After the Night (Até Ver a Luz) (2014) directed by Basil de Cunha

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

After the Night, a 95 minute gangland adventure from a first-time director, initially feels like a promising proposition. This is usually a recipe for lean, muscular cinema; low budget film-making with a reliance on urban flavour, smart dialogue and interesting characters over expensive action sequences and flashy camera techniques. The problem is that After the Night isn't lean and muscular at all.  It's flabby, ponderous and frustrating, a meandering tension-free bundle of just-plain-boring.

Set in the creole slums of Lisbon we follow Sombra (Pedro Ferreria), a solitary, numb and dreadlocked small time drug dealer. The story opens with the local gangsters discovering their stash has been stolen, understandably furious they look for someone to blame. Their eyes fallon Sombra, who to be fair to the gangsters does spend most of the film acting pretty shady.  The rest of the film shows an increasingly tight noose forming around Sombra's neck as he tries to claw back money owed to him, pay off the furious gangsters and care for his pet iguana. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is a pretty promising set-up, it's film noir 101 for sure - but transplanting that into modern Lisbon could just maybe give it a fresh edge.

The slums form a pretty damn miserable backdrop.  These characters are all first or second generation African immigrants, and it seems as if this is a little slice of urban Africa transplanted into the middle of Europe.  Exposed rebar juts from a thousand crumbling concrete walls, the corrugated iron roofs creak metallically overhead and, for the most part, the police are nowhere to be found. 

De Cunha's characters (particularly Sombra) are at one with this environment. They constantly sneak along walls, pad across rooftops and burrow into gloomy holes - everyone having their own relationship with the neighbourhood, especially the local band, who've fashioned their instruments from the detritus around them. At bare minimum this is a relatively unique environment for cinema, though obviously influenced by Brazilian favela crime dramas (particularly City of God). But interesting though this location initially is, under de Cunho's lens it gets pretty samey pretty fast. 

That's small fry in comparison to the colossal problems in the pacing of this film. It drags on and on (and on) with very little happening, almost every scene able to be trimmed down to half its length without any damage done to the coherency. Much of this is due to the improvised nature of the script, which is a theoretically a ticket to naturalistic cinema but in practice means the dialogue goes in endless circles.

De Cunha seems to be going for a zoned out, trippy structure, with a slightly mischievous edge to his style.  He pulls directorial stunts - for example when his hero is stalking across a rooftop, machete in hand, ready to wreak bloody violence on his foes - he randomly runs into a friend and stops for a relaxed 5 minute chat about lanterns. I can almost respect the ballsiness of a director who confounds and teases his audience - but if you were the passenger in a car de Cunha was driving he'd suddenly slam on the brakes, causing your head to bonk off the dashboard. He'd probably laugh too.

By the mid-point you realise there's more digression than actual plot.  I tried my best to re-evaluate what I was seeing, trying to work out what the director was going for and coming up short.  Matters aren't helped by a protagonist whose emotions range from unconscious to staring blankly into space.  Sombra gives us next to no reason to care about his plight, just sticking in a kind of deranged, detached drugged outness for the entire run-time.  With this yawning chasm of charisma at the centre of the film the character who I found myself caring most about was a damn iguana.

Still, Sombra's subdued passivity is at least quiet, unlike the long, semi-improvised scenes with the gangsters. If you've ever wanted to see a bunch of angry guys yelling at each other in indecipherable accents then boy this is the film for you.  Apart from it being difficult to tell what's going on (even with subtitles) I was just worn down by the constant screaming. Being numbed by aggressive dialogue isn't necessarily a bad thing, but here I was just annoyed - checking my watch and getting that sinking feeling when I realised there's at least 40 minutes more of this to go.  My fellow audience members clearly felt the same way, at least half the cinema leaving in dribs and drabs as it became increasingly apparent that this wasn't going to get any better. 

I was envious of those that left and very tempted to get out of there myself - but I don't feel right criticising a film without watching the whole thing.  So my suffering was on your behalf - and I report back that After the Night is an unrewarding, annoying and very very boring film that's difficult to enjoy on any conceivable level. 

After the Night is on general release from April 25th

Monday, April 21, 2014

Looking for Light: Jane Bown (2014) directed by Luke Dodd & Michael White

Monday, April 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Looking for Light is a confident and modest documentary structured with intelligence and close attention to detail.  This buttoned-down precision matches the temperament of its subject: legendary Observer photographer Jane Bown.  Bown, responsible for photographing the luminaries interviewed in the Sunday paper, appears to have shot every major personality of the last 60 or so years.  From Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan and Elizabeth II to Björk, Jarvis Cocker and er, David Gray.  

Born in 1925, the 2013 Jane Bown embodies some platonic Grannyesque ideal. She lives in a comfy house in the English countryside, replete with slightly faded black and white framed photos, china geegaws and a friendly cat. You almost smell the milky tea and taste the custard cream biscuits. She's an enigmatic woman, given to smiling at private jokes and staring off into the distance while making gnomic statements, the significance of which is obvious to her alone.

A decent slice of the documentary is devoted to unravelling the whys and hows of Jane Bown, trying to decode her personality from her personal history. At work she's quiet and unassuming, reporters tell us of her flitting around them as they conduct an interview, shooting pictures with cool, confident professionalism. Bown repeatedly explains that The Observer newspaper office was and somehow always will be her true home. She's apparently speaking literally, describing washing and drying her hair in the dark room. Even though The Observer has now moved to King's Cross she still spends time hanging out in the lobby, chatting to a steady stream of her former colleagues, all of whom are delighted to see her and happily stop to have a natter.

Bjork by Jane Bown
Refreshingly (considering some recent art documentaries) Bown's work is presented beautifully and treated with the gravitas it deserves.  It's a testament to her aesthetic skills that by far the best portions of the film are silent slideshows of her black and white portraits.  This is brilliant minimalist cinema, the directors confident enough to let Bown's work stand alone without distracting commentary or even much context.  As we lock stares with the leading lights of the 20th century, we sense that these portraits captures some essence of their being.  Possibly this is us projecting what we'd like to see onto the subjects, yet there's a gleam in the eyes and a kind of statuesque permanence in the greys and deep blacks surrounding them.

The best is an astonishing portrait of a grumpy Samuel Beckett, snapped in a hurry outside a stage door. With a face like a beaten up leather glove, wiry hair and deep eyes he looks hewn from steel – simultaneously sad, confident and perceptive.  I get a bit peeved at 'artist' photographers; an Instagram feed of squirrels in parks and boho junk shops tinted sepia does not an artist make.  Yet confronted with this body of work it's impossible to deny that Bown has some unique combination of technical ability, aesthetic instinct and perfect timing that allows her to clearly capture the essence of her subject.

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown
This documentary aims for the same clarity, conducting a photographic archaeological excavation into Bown's past.  This is where the film comes a little unstuck. Bown's childhood and ancestry is mildly diverting stuff, and her being shuttled from family to family as a child certainly impacted upon her adult personality – yet a touch too much time is devoted to it. There are moments where we're poring through boxes of dog-eared faded photographs of the long-dead when you feel as if you're trapped with an much-loved, yet slightly boring great aunt. It's a pity,  Bown is by far at her most interesting when she's engaged in discussions of her work rather than her roots and the director's insistence on dwelling on gravestones and family trees feels a touch heavyhanded – forcing her into the role of a 'granny' rather than 'artist'.

Similarly slightly disappointing are the interviews with Bown's colleagues and friends. Bown admittedly seems like a lovely person to know and work with, yet the constant singing of her praises means that we all too often stray into the realm of hagiography rather than actual analysis of what her work and life add up to. There's also a somewhat odd out-of-place interview with Richard Ashcroft, who appears to have no connection to Bown other than being photographed by her once – he subsequently claims that they “fell in love” during the session, a claim that sounds a touch bizarre.

This the strength of the material shines through – how could it not?  Though things are a bit padded at times, this is a film that knows its strengths lie in Bown's amazing black and white photography. When this is front and centre the film approaches the sublime, allowing us to drift silently in a sea of texture, shadow and gradients. Watching this in a cinema the size of the pictures only adds to their impact, trumping flicking through them in a book or online any day.

But in actually understanding the whos and whys of Mary Bown the film comes up short. By the time the credits roll we know about her childhood and her photographic commandments – but as a person she remains mysterious and opaque.  In the end it's the newspaper she worked for that came to define her identity; she's not a participant so much as a quiet, attentive and artful 'observer' – no wonder she's such a such a successful photographer.


Looking for Light: Jane Bown is released April 25th

Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs' at the Tate Modern, 18th April 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Uh-oh.  I don't get it.  This dawns on me as I stand in a sea of carefully bearded and expensively handbagged Tate Modern visitors, smack dab in the middle of one of the most critically acclaimed exhibitions of the year, surrounded by countless priceless works by one of the universally acknowledged masters of 20th century art and... I feel nothing except a vague sense of samey boredom.  Is it just me?  It's gotta be me.  Right?

The Cut-Outs showcases what Matisse was up to for the last seventeen years of his life. In his old age he himself unable to paint with the skill, speed and precision he once possessed. But though the flesh was weak the mind still burned, and so Matisse embarked on an entirely new discipline; cut-outs.  He'd used this method in the past to visualise arrangements when planning paintings, but he soon began to realise that this could be an entirely new method of expression.  

So, chunky scissors in aged hand, he commenced a one man war against reams of paper, slicing, cutting and pasting them into shapes, layering colours upon each other and creating a huge number of works that combine an attractively primitive childishness with a master's eye for composition, colour balance and reducing objects to their essential forms. 

Polynesia, the sea (1946)
There's a few videos throughout this exhibition that show Matisse at work on these pieces. He works his scissors like a top class butcher, trimming away extraneous paper, working in one smooth motion to reveal a shape that comes out so fully formed it's as if he's freeing it from the paper rather than merely creating it.  As a placard within the exhibition explains, it's by seeing these videos that you understand that this creation is a three-dimensional process, the paper flopping and rolling over the old man's hands as he works at it.

An old master discovering, learning and mastering a new form of creation in his final years is an undeniably cheery narrative. It's difficult not to feel a tingle of happiness for him as you read of his happiness with the works, explaining that he's realising ideas and visions that he's been unable to before.  This optimistic mood buoys up an exhibition that, with its explosions of colour and vibrant organic shapes, couldn't be better suited for a big summer exhibition.

But I didn't like it very much.  It almost feels rude to say that.  Who the hell I am to come wandering into the Tate Modern and start dissing Matisse... Matisse for god's sake!  I've always held that art should make me feel something - and trying understanding why I feel a certain way is the basis of every article I write; whether it makes me laugh, makes me sad, makes me curious, even infuriating me or making me bored as hell.  I just want some kind of emotional response, a foothold through which I can better understand the work, the world and myself.

The Sheaf (1953)
But I didn't feel much of anything when I was looking at any of this  They look like something you'd see on the side of a mug in a middle-class housewares shop, or perhaps stuck on the wall of a mid range hotel lobby.  I guess this isn't Matisse's fault, the reason I make the link is because middle-class housewares and hotel lobbies have appropriated and homogenised this style because a) it's pretty and colourful and b) it's so safely abstract that it can't possibly offend anyone.  It's this middle-of-the-road-ness that leapt out at me, reminding me of joyless corporate art whose aim is simply to throw a splodge of colour onto a grey office wall.

I'm sure there are people who will thrill at the sight of the hundredth piece of decoupaged seaweed but aside from a basic admiration for the artist in being so productive in his later years, this straightforward focus on colour and shape just doesn't do anything for me. Intellectually I can understand these geometric interplays and composition as some kind of 'essence of art', a sublimation of why humans appreciate visual imagery at all.  But even with that in mind I'm not particularly enjoying or appreciating this stuff at all.

The Snail (1953)

Perhaps I just don't have the eye or the education.  My tastes skew towards aggressive, forceful poppiness; art that boots down the front door of the mind and chucks a hand grenade in.  In comparison this is detached prettiness, nothing much to communicate other than what I'm looking it exists and it's somewhat pleasing to the eye.

I feel like such a dick saying all that about Matisse but there you have it.  As I put together the bones of this review while walking about the exhibition I seriously debated just pretending that I'd enjoyed it.  It'd be far easier to mouth a bunch of platitudes about the joy of seeing shapes interplaying with each other and the vibrancy of colour and whatnot, -but it'd have all been a big fat lie.  The simple truth is that all this apparent virtuosity did bugger all for me and if I'd have paid £18 to get in I'd have felt disappointed and short-changed. 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is at the Tate Modern 17th April - 7th September 2014.  Adults £18 / Concs £16.

Thanks to Chris Wilcox for taking me!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

'In This House: A Family Breakdown' at the Space Arts Centre, 12th April 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Going to see a play about a murder trial is a bit of a busman's holiday for me.  I've spent an inordinate amount of time in courtrooms up and down the country watching murderers balefully staring from the dock as the relatives of their victim tearfully give their testimony or tweed-wearing experts make lofty pronouncements on their state of mind.  A juicy murder trial with lots of interesting wrinkles is such a fascinating thing to get involved in that I'm surprised the viewing galleries are so often empty; you can go down to the Old Bailey and watch theatre that'll beat the socks off anything in the West End - and it's all free!

A murder is at the centre of Natalie Songer's In This House.  Lucy Mason, an unassuming teenage girl, has butchered her whole family over dinner. The press have dubbed her "the Angel of Death" and we come in at the beginning of her trial.  The prosecution and defence counsel are duelling comperes squaring off against each other; introducing the case with lascivious joy, imploring the audience to act as jury and to decide whether she's a cold-hearted, calculating killer or a poor waif driven inexorably towards carnage.

As counsel cross-examine the witnesses their testimony is dramatised, and so we gradually piece together the facts about what happened.  Throughout this process our sympathies slip and slide, one moment the evidence leans one way, the next another - the story shifting subtly depending on who's doing the telling.

This is a clever (and accurate) way of dramatising what goes on during a trial. Even the recent past has a frustrating tendency to become fuzzy and vague when placed under the legal microscope.  Time and space splinter into a thousand shards and the court's job is to reassemble them - their goal is an objective truth, but it's an impossible one to achieve.  In The House understands this, cleverly using Brechtian technique to highlight how the ways a courtroom works.

With this in mind the play sticks like glue to the principles of Epic theatre.  The cast remains on stage at all times, waiting patiently on chairs at either side of the stage for their cues. They change costumes in front of us, gossiping out of character before the action begins and waving placards during the action imploring us to applaud the appearance of a new witness. On more straightforward level the counsel frequently remind us that we're not watching a trial, that all this is made up, and that any legal nitpickers in the audience should button it and remember they're not in an actual court room.

Songer's play takes a warped delight in rubbing the audience's noses in the artifice, daring us to care about what we're watching. Of course, given how effective these scenes are played it's impossible for us not to get involved, the audience collectively bubbling with righteous indignation as we witness the horrors that Lucy's family visit upon her.  These people are so horrible they venture into Roald Dahl territory; a warped gaggle of grotesques with few likeable qualities.  That said, supremely hateful though they are, I can personally attest that they're far from unrealistic.

Particular credit has to go to Simon Kirk as the domineering, sexually screwed up father. He vibrates with rage, his lip cruelly curling as he dismembers his daughter's dignity. The character is a tightly wound bundle of red-faced, extroverted stupidity - if The Daily Mail were to be embodied in a human being you wouldn't be too far off the mark. Kirk makes his character so despicable so fast that the audience quickly comes to the silent consensus that maybe it's not so bad that this man dies a horrible death.  

The flipside of the coin is Grace Chilton as the angelic, innocent killer. With a simple white dress as her costume and a relaxed, open demeanour she comes across as girlish.  Just as we instantly hate the father, we immediately warm to Lucy.  She's the tortured, humiliated artist, an innocent victim of a cruel world who merely did what she had to do to survive, right? But underneath Lucy's pleasant, open demeanour Chilton layers something not quite right; it's slippery and difficult to pin down, but there's something definitely wrong here - and it's a sign of a nuanced performance that it takes us nearly the entire play to work out what it might be.

This dialogue between the past and present, with memories springing to life in front of us eventually feels less like an impartial reenactment and more like an idealised version of events.  Songer guides us intellectually and emotionally down a precise path she wants us to take; possessing the skill of making us feel exactly what she wants us to feel.  She shares this skill with expert legal counsel, whose success depends on being able to influence a jury one way or the other. In the final moments of the play we recognise just how much manipulation has been going on; echoing out from the centre. The fictional characters have been manipulated; the audience has been manipulated and we realise just how much the application of justice relies on this subtle manipulation.

As theatrical statement it's a success.  As a play it's not perfect though - there's the odd clunky line, the final act turns on a cliched psychological twist and, though the characters are at pains to underline that this is not a 'real' trial and court procedure does not apply, misused terminology and off phrasing rankles the legal nerd in me.  Despite that, as someone who's witnessed an awful lot of trials, In This House really does capture the mood and tone of a court room, as piece after piece of a grisly puzzle gradually slots into place.  It's a quietly great piece of theatre: engaging from start to finish, smartly put together and well worth a trip down to Docklands to check it out.

In This House: A Family Breakdown is at the Space Arts Centre: 8th – 19th April, 7:30pm £14/£10. Tickets here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pat Dam Smyth at St Pancras Old Church, 11th April 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The dead of Old St Pancras are restless.  Hundreds of years ago they laid their heads down for the last time.  Or so they thought.  Then along came tomorrow,  it made demands for space, efficiency and time.  The Victorians were boldly marching towards a  industrial future and the girders of St Pancras station began to loom out of a foggy sky.  In its way lay seven thousand sleeping Londoners, accreted Georgian, Stuart, Tudor and Elizabethan dead. They had to be gotten rid of and despite a public outcry they were quickly and unceremoniously exhumed from the churchyard and haphazardly heaved into a gaping pit under the railway line. In a bizarre twist the person charged with organising this mess was a young Thomas Hardy. He found being a dustman of corpses naturally rather traumatic, later writing:

"O passenger, pray list and catch 
          Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
          Of wrenched memorial stones!
"We late-lamented, resting here, 
          Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
          'I know not which I am!'

The Levelled Churchyard - Thomas Hardy

Hemmed in by cars on one side and trains on the other, Old St Pancras cuts a lonely, yet  still dignified figure.  Legend has it that the Romans built a temple here, then the Normans on top of that, then the Tudors on top them, then Victorians and finally, after the Luftwaffe had had their way with London post-war architects added the finishing touches.  Today jagged cracks run across the plaster of walls bristling with important (and bearded) dead men. I suppose after it's been through so much any building will pick up a few scars - so with an eye on raising a bit of dough to fix this up they're hosting concerts.

And that's where I come in. Last night this holy place became even more holy, the nave not ringing with theology, but with an acoustic boom of folk and ramshackle rock and roll. On the bill were Mick O' Regan, Mark Harrison, Winspear & William and, headlining, Pat Dam Smyth.

Mick O'Regan
There's something fundamentally reassuring about a church full to the rafters with music. Walking into the room like this and seeing a lone man clutching an acoustic guitar, plaintively singing tender songs to an attentive crowd feels genuinely spiritual.  This was Mick O'Regan, and if you looked up 'folk singer' in the dictionary I'm pretty sure you'd find a picture of him.  Acoustic guitar, check. Harmonica holder, check. Blue jeans, white shirt and black waistcoat, check.  Song about Woody Guthrie, check.  I guess if you're going to do something do it right, and anyway, he cuts an elegant man-out-of-time figure up on stage.

Mark Harrison
Next is Mark Harrison. His best song is a short and pointed number about a man named Greenwood LeFlore.  He was a mixed race Choctaw in the mid 19th century, and having risen to a position of authority within his tribe, worked hard to negotiate a settlement of land for his people.  Displaying considerable talent in realpolitik he recognised that fighting against European settlement was like trying to push back the tide.  So, with this half European heritage and Western education he negotiated a decent, if pragmatic, agreement.  With this under his belt he went on to become a US Senator - a sort of race relations success story right?  Well after that he went on to become a slave owner in Mississippi.  The moral? History is mixed up and complicated and life rarely conforms to a narrative.  Harrison spins this tale well, and I appreciate a bit of a history lesson in my music.

Next up are Winspear & William, though they're soon joined by a flautist.  After gentle acoustic numbers it's a relief to hear something with a bit of boom to it.  The two sing in close, rising harmonies that perfectly reverberate around the room.  Sat at the front I felt the air in my lungs quivering in time. Props have to go to the guy on the sound desk for making this all sound so good, and, I guess to the groups of various architects through time who designed the room. 

Winspear & William
I was having a pretty good time by this point. I guess sitting in a church listening to gentle acoustic folk isn't exactly the craziest thing I could be doing on a Friday night, but every note did its bit to wash away the grub and grime of the working week. But things were about to kicked up to a whole new level.  I've never seen Pat Dam Smyth before so I didn't know what to expect. They're a band dislocated from time, one as fun to listen to in the 1960s as they'd be if they played in the 2060s.  When you go to a lot of gigs it's easy to take for granted how hard playing an instrument and performing is.  But here it was at the forefront of my mind; the band coming across less as rock stars and more as expert craftsman - taking the same pride in their carefully constructed work as a master carpenter would in a perfect chair.

Pat Dam Smyth
The undisputed highlight of the whole night for me was their cover of Willow's Song from The Wicker Man.  My knee-jerk reaction was to read this as a miniature act of subversion - singing a pagan song smack dab in the middle of a church.  But I quickly softened - whatever atrocities are committed in the name of God and Church it's difficult to see them in the warmly, crumbling homeliness of Old St Pancras.  The song, a paean to female sexuality, felt bizarrely appropriate here - the rural imagery of the song having far more in common with greenery and old stones than with the electric buzz outside the churchyard gates.   Anyway, the building itself seemed to give consent, chiming out its churchbell as the clock struck 11, the architecture working itself gently into the composition.  With the building perspiring with history and the graveless ghosts of old London sitting patiently in the aisle there was a centred feeling that all was right with the world.

Anyway, I absolutely adore The Wicker Man, so this was the cherry on a delicious cake for me. And at just £5 entry and £3 for beers a cheap cake too.   If the other gigs in this series are as good as this I may well come back.

Friday, April 11, 2014

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' (2014) directed by Marc Webb

Friday, April 11, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Just when I thought I was sick of superhero movies... I'd figured The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was going to be another in an endless parade of identikit blockbusters by numbers. All the signs were there; The Amazing Spider-Man was a largely bland experience with brief moments of enjoyment; Marc Webb was a relatively inexperienced director the studio could push around a bit and, worst of all, there's queasy behind-the-scenes knowledge that this new Spider-Man series is less artistic endeavour and more contractual obligation so Sony can keep the character rights. These aren't necessarily portents of certain doom, but let's just say it doesn't exactly build anticipation.

But probably 10 minutes into this sequel I was having the time of my life.  This is superhero action as it should be, a whirlwind of primary colours and intense kineticity. We've all seen Spider-Man swing around New York before, but Webb has captured the joy of the character's motion in a way that Raimi only hinted at.  The character moves with the grace, personality and precision of a Pixar character - the kind of action sequences that you want to pick through frame by frame to catch every tiny gag and movement.  With some great 3D effects they quickly bypasse your critical faculties and go straight for the adrenal gland.

There are several of these astonishingly well-constructed action sequences within the film, mixtures of long CG tracking shots, close-ups and crackling effects.  Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man - clad in a beautifully straightforward rendition of his comicbook costume - is never anything less than enjoyable to look at.  But the film's most remarkable achievement is Electro.  Played by Jaime Foxx as a low-rent pop-art Dr Manhattan it quickly transpires that his superpower isn't electricity. It's dubstep.

Drop the bass!
The first time he unleashes his powers there's a colossal bass drop and a grinding 'wubwubwub' that rattles the cinema (seriously, see this in a screen with impressive sound system).  This gives the film the perfect opportunity to transform every action sequence with him into it into a warped musical number.  The score and sound design fuse together, turning the fights into cut-up dance tracks.  This concept reaches its apotheosis late in the film in a gobsmacking fight in a power station where the characters striking pillars produces synth melodies.  Then the whole arena turns into a gigantic graphic equaliser!  

After the lacklustre Lizard-fighting action sequences of the first film I figured Marc Webb just didn't have this in him.  But here, with Electro pulsating to the beat like a walking glow-stick, curling tendrils of blue neon enveloping the characters and Spider-Man whipping through it all, I felt a sense of tripped out cinematic exhilaration that I'd last felt in the awesome climactic race of Speed Racer and the climactic battles of Pacific Rim. These are beautiful, imaginative action sequences that make this glut of superhero films worthwhile.

This is stunning in 3D motion on a big screen.
The action is so good that it's unfortunate that it's surrounded by drama that, while competently constructed, isn't exactly a shining example of plotting.  I admire simplicity in cinema, but there's a rather annoying tendency in both this and it's prequel to devolve into legacy-based storytelling with future sequels in mind.  Easily the low points of the film are when it expects us to care about the mystery of what Peter Parker's Dad was up to before he died, a story strand that's dull and peculiarly Harry Potterish.

It's not that these sequences are poorly put together, but they certainly drag on a bit. There's also the classic superhero pitfall of juggling a villain too many. Dane DeHaan is great as Harry Osborne, but his transformation into the Green Goblin doesn't just give him claws and jagged teeth, it turnis him from a charismatic, sympathetic antagonist into a 2D cartoon badguy.  His stuff isn't exactly awful per se, but it feels a bit redundant after the fascinating Electro sequences.

But for every duff bit of pacing and plotting the film more than makes up for it in sheer gumption.  Webb has pinpointed precisely the right tone for a Spider-Man movie - able to mix up cartoonish slapstick and ludicrous superscience with genuine emotion and character development.  There's a refreshingly gleeful disregard for 'realism' - I particularly love that Electro gets his superpowers simply by falling into a tank of electric eels and exploding.  In fact, with the whiff of camp, the neon colour palette and lots of enjoyably hammy over-acting (and Electro initially being pretty much the Riddler from Batman Forever), Webb begins to very faintly recall the 1990s Batman films of Joel Schumacher.

Fortunately Electro doesn't make quite as many crappy puns as Mr Freeze did.
Did you hear that faint wail over the horizon?  That was the sound of a thousand fanboys wailing in torment.  But this lighthearted style works for Spider-Man, presenting us with a sunny, optimistic, comedic universe that's light years from the po-faced and glib Marvel Studios films. There's a warm sense of community to New York, with lovely sequences of a a city in love with a Spider-Man to whom the description "friendly, neighbourhood" has never applied more.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn't a perfect summer blockbuster but it's damn close.  Some trimming of extraneous characters and excision of irrelevant plotlines and you'd have something genuinely amazing.  As it stands, this is a seriously impressive and thrilling superhero film that throws the po-faced greyness of Marvel's recent The Winter Soldier into sharp relief.  Highly recommended.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on general release in the UK from 16 April and in the US from 2nd May (ouch!)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cabaret Roulette: 'Guilty Pleasures' at Madame JoJos, 9th April 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I like Soho.  I like the piss-addled alleys.  I like the bitchy queens hanging around outside the Admiral Duncan.  I like Gosh! Comics. I like the neon soaked sex shops.  I like Maoz Falafel. And I especially like Madame JoJos.  As London fattens itself on the blood of Russian oligarchs and glittering glass erections thrust out of the 14th century plague pits it's reassuring to know that the heart of the city is all about tits, cocks and cum.  Perversely it's the sleaze that's most honest these days, 200 years of libido baked into the filthy paving stones.

This means that sitting underground in Madame JoJos watching cabaret feels imperceptibly 'right'.  You're participating (however subtly) in a human chain of debauchery stretching back to the Georgian era.  As you sit surrounded by plush red velvet and gilt, art deco ornamentation you can practically sense the ghosts of gangsters, beatniks and showgirls swanning around you. Tonight the theme is 'guilty pleasures' and honestly, enjoying all this sticky, louche glamour is one of mine. 

Cabaret Roulette is a regular fixture at JoJos: it's mission to bring democracy to vaudeville. The idea is that the audience chooses the theme for upcoming nights, suggesting them on their Facebook page and then picking one based on how much applause the concept gets in the club.  Once it's been decided eight performers have two months to develop an act based on the theme.  On the bill tonight are a nicely varied mixture of magic, music, and dance - all leavened with a decent dose of satire.

In charge of this whole shebang is Eva Von Schnippish, in character as a slightly warped randy Marlene Dietrich type.  She makes the whole thing look effortless, which of course means that she's really good at her job. There's a cosy familiarity to this kind of patter, material that basically hearkens back to end-of-the-pier shows at then-glitzy seaside resorts and has its roots in the mythical Weimar cabaret.  

Jeu Jeu La Foille
An early highlight is Jeu Jeu La Foille.  She brings on stage a bag-for-life from the Richmond branch of Whole Foods, an item that neatly encompasses a wide range of emotions: bourgeois foodie superiority, economic healthiness coupled with big box corporate hippyism.  To the opening bars of Meat is Murder she pulls a Burger King Whopper out, guilt and pleasure fighting for control.  Soon after there's a Gaga-esque meat dress (though disappointingly not actually made of meat), and the flourishing of a pork pie and bag of scratchings.  Bleeding hunks of murdered meat and eroticism is a potent combination, and even though this is largely pro-meat it's at minimum promising to see the act of consuming flesh as a 'guilty' pleasure and not just a straightforward one.

After some crazy/sexy jazz contortionism by the amazing Lily Raptor we move onto Merlesque.  It's difficult to pin down exactly what's so erotically magnetic about a pair of murderous ukelele wielding half woman half fish girls - I began to suspect it was excavating some long-buried pre-adolescent yearnings for Ariel from The Little Mermaid.  These suspicions were confirmed when they launched into a twisted cover of Part of My World mixed up with references to cut-throat capitalism and Karl Marx.  Be still my beating heart!

Bigchief Randomchaos
Up next was puke-drinking and self-harm from Bigchief Randomchaos.  This is a kind of gonzo clown act pitched somewhere between Rob Zombie and the Jim Rose Circus.  The whole thing is shot through with freewheeling anarchism, skating on the thin ice between entertainment and disgust. Randomchaos is, if nothing else, charismatic - able to pinpoint the exact point between charm and obnoxiousness.  As he lowers his bare ass onto a tray covered in drawing pins, all while assuring us that enjoying this would be his guilty pleasure if he felt guilty about it. As he stands up the pins tinkle to the floor and his ass crack burns an angry red. We'll take his word for that this is fun.

Alfie Ordinary
Following this was an intricate ballad about big cocks and Justin Bieber from Anna Lou Larkin and some booze-raddled magic by Miss Jones.  After them was Alfie Ordinary, playing melancholy piano-led covers of Gina G's Ooh Ahh.. Just a Little Bit and Carly Rae Jepson's Call Me Maybe.  With a persona pitched just the right side of drag, Alfie embodies the spirit of cabaret.  This is a self-deprecating confessional - a bitingly morose romantic world of unrequited passions. He injects his pop with impossible longing - transforming mindless burbling lyrics into something honest and true.

Peggy De Lune
Last on was Peggy De Lune performing a punk-tinged striptease to Die Antwoord's Cookie Thumper.  She began in pink puffery, a squeaky caricature bimbo queen.  More child than woman she fluffed around the stage burbling Betty Boopish drivel.  But as soon as that killer bass beat kicked in all bets were off.  Cookie Thumper, if you're not familiar with the song, is a machine-gun rap-rant by mean-ass mentalist Yolandi Vi$$er over pounding techno beats. The song has an electric rhythm running right through it, plugged right into De Lune's nervous system.  The song gets more and more aggressively bananas as it goes on, as did the dance - culminating in a topless whirl of nipples and Capri-sun. It was a perfect capper to the evening - I'm not even sure what could have followed her. 

The only thing that could have made this a more perfect Soho night was if I'd gotten mugged, puked down my shirt and woken up covered in glitter in a wheelie bin - but it was a worknight after all. Maybe on the weekend.

The next Cabaret Roulette is on 14th May - the theme: VILLAINY.

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