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Saturday, May 31, 2014

'Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014) directed by Florian Habicht

Saturday, May 31, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

 
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets is the best film that could be made about Pulp. The majority of British pop bands were eager to be seen as “one of the lads,” with a pint in one hand and a copy of Loaded magazine in the other. Not Pulp, who wholeheartedly embraced an individualistic style of pervy proletariat, outsider chic. Their lyrics are the stuff of fluttering net curtains in run-down terraced houses, chaotic and confused teenage lust and not only not fitting in, but knowing you’ll never be able to. This documentary, centring on the band’s 2012 farewell concert, grasps everything that Pulp is about. It’s less a straightforward band biography and more a sociological study of the swamp of fears, loves and passions that bubbles away under the industrially cratered landscape of Sheffield.

Read the rest at We Got This Covered

★★★★★

Pulp, A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets is released June 6th.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Benny & Jolene (2014) directed by Jamie Adams

Friday, May 30, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"Benny & Jolene is what happens when low-budget indie mumblecore goes This is Spinal Tap.  While not quite a mockumentary, this film covers the same fruitful territory of disastrous gigs, incompetent managers, brainless hangers-on and inter-band conflict.  Yet while Spinal Tap were a heavy metal band powered by twin engines of egotism and stupidity, the duo at the centre of Benny & Jolene are hamstrung by shyness, naivety and an inability to speak up for themselves."

Read the rest of my review at We Got This Covered

★★★
 
Benny & Jolene is released June 6th

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

'Edge of Tomorrow' (2014) directed by Doug Liman

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


I bet every review of Edge of Tomorrow is going to mention Groundhog Day, but the comparison is irresistible. The blood of the Bill Murray classic has been transfused into the still warm body of the Starship Troopers franchise and the resulting film is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster.  But instead of Punxatawny Phil we have Tom Cruise in science fiction hero mode, Andie MacDowell is wielding a giant sword and the cute groundhog is replaced with a horde of bloodthirsty tentacled monsters.

I've got a pet theory that Tom Cruise works best in a film where he plays a smarmy bastard that gets taken down a peg or two, and at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow he's rarely been smarmier.  Faced with a somewhat generic alien invasion of Europe, he's Cage, a former advertising executive turned military PR man with designs on staying as far away from any actual fighting as possible.  His oily cowardice angers a General (a largely wasted Brendan Gleeson), who promptly pressgangs him into the front lines of an upcoming invasion of Europe.  Sweaty, terrified and miserable as hell, Cage is strapped into a clunky robot exoskeleton and tossed into the beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan.  He dies horribly.

Then he wakes up.  It's the same day all over again.  Once again he's thrown onto the battlefield, but this time survives a little longer before once more biting it.  As he undergoes this endless cycle of death and rebirth he gradually becomes a better soldier, learning how to fight the monsters, use his equipment and stay calm on the battlefield. The problem is, no matter how hard he fights, the monsters always win.  Enter the Full Metal Bitch (Emily Blunt).  She knows exactly what's going on with Cage's time loop, and the two resolve to use it to end the war once and for all.

Tom Cruise is about to die horribly.  Again.
Very quickly it turns out that the concept of being trapped in an endless time loop is intrinsically pretty funny, even if the human race is on the brink of destruction.  Liman can't resist working through a series of extremely Groundhog Dayish time travel gags, the highlight being a short montage of Tom Cruise dying in various silly ways which amused me no end. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Cruise: while I can't deny his supercharisma and basic everyman likeability I take a sadistic pleasure in watching horrible things happen to him.  Whether he's getting his face ripped off in Vanilla Sky or murdering clones of himself in Oblivion I'm enjoying myself, so any film where the most expedient way out of a sticky situation is to shoot Tom Cruise in the head (thus resetting the timeline) is a-okay in my book.  

By quite a wide margin Edge of Tomorrow boasts the highest Cruise-deaths-per-minute in cinema to date, and I'd recommend it for that alone.  Fortunately it's also got more going for it.  Emily Blunt is quietly excellent as the buttoned down supersoldier, a warrior that's precisely as robotic and precise as the exoskeleton that powers her.  Initially she seems a bit flat, but quickly you realise her emotional numbness is the logical psychological result of dying thousands of times and ultimately failing.  She's so impressive as a cold-blooded monster-murderer extraordinaire that it becomes a bit disappointing when she begins to thaw and show her true personality.  But Blunt keeps a tight leash on the character and Liman never quite lets Cruise overshadow her in the badass stakes.

Similarly impressive are the robotic exoskeletons.  Though they must be computer generated they have an utterly believable clunky weight to them, the soldiers fighting and moving like Ripley in the Power Loader in the climax of Aliens.  We're never quite allowed to take them for granted, and with weapons bristling out of them like a Swiss Army Knife designed by 2000AD they serve to keep the action sequences full of surprises and neat moments right up to the climax.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the rather uninspired alien designs.  They're essentially a blob of tentacles with a mouth in the middle, and though they move in a disarmingly quick manner the film never quite shows what they do to kill a man.  Paul Verhoeven in Starship Troopers knew enough to show them disembowelling a man in the opening sequence, immediately underlining how dangerous his bugs were.  By comparison, Liman's monsters are a bit bland and chew their way through the soldiers in a boringly antiseptic manner.

They've basically got to get a doohickey to find out where that space onion lives.
The screenplay also has a worringly tendency to dip into  clunky exposition and technobabble to the point where characters look like they're trying not to crack up at the rubbish they're forced to say.  Harold Ramis and Bill Murray knew better than to explain the 'how' of their time loop, but as science fiction Edge of Tomorrow seems to feel obliged to try, leading to some largely tedious scenes where characters stare at spinning holograms and blithely spout a load of portentous sounding drivel.

That all said, Edge of Tomorrow is inarguably a superior summer blockbuster.  The time loop gimmick is a beautiful, if unoriginal, storytelling tool and Liman exploits the possibilities of it to the fullest.  The whole thing falls apart like a house of cards if you think about it too much, but though there's the odd creaky moment the whole affair just about hangs together.  Much as I hate to admit it, science fiction Tom Cruise is a safe bet right now.  After all, the man enjoys silly alien stories so much he literally made it his religion - what finer recommendation could you ask for?

★★★★ 

Edge of Tomorrow is on general release from May 30th.  Don't bother with 3D on this one.

'Heteroglossia: Art & Science' at Central St Martins, 27th May 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


All too often the art world can seem fragmented and transitional.  You wander off the street into an interesting exhibition and vow that you're going to keep track of this artist, only to find that they promptly vanish into thin air.  Not so with the Art & Science group at Central St Martins.  In November 2013 I visited Experimentations; an exhibition held by a group of art students probing the divide between the two disciplines.  It was promising stuff.  In February I attended another: Live In Your Dreams, down in the crypt of St Pancras Church. This makes Heteroglossia the final instalment of a trilogy, the progression through the exhibitions leaving me with a much clearer sense of what makes these artists tick.

Here the edges of art and science are blurred, tangled and torn.  Weird odours bubble from steaming pools, organs float in blissful suspended animation, proteins knot up into new materials, metal deforms around light and hard sterile glass becomes furry and plush.  The science that the artists of Central St Martins have cottoned onto is the transmutation of materials, many of the pieces capturing or freezing the exact moment in which change occurs.  This is alchemy - the primordial soup of modern science - and it's alchemical symbols, philosophy and rituals that this exhibition returns to time and time again.

Alchemist Laboratory - Jaden JA Hastings & Amy Congdon
The most literal interpretation is Jaden J.A. Hastings and Amy Congdon's Alchemist Laboratory. Here a labcoat has mutated into the occult robes of a magician, the table covered in glass flasks arranged to form a semi-symmetric sigil.  It's an approach to science by way of magical thinking.  This train of thought continues in Hastings' excellent Vitalitas, with a decellularised pig's heart preserved in formaldehyde within a pagoda-like reliquary. Decellularisation is the process by which the cells are stripped from an organ, leaving behind the extracellular matrix.  This lowers the risk of transplant rejection, meaning the heart in Vitalitas sits right on the fence between its donor and its intended origin; frozen in time, space and biology.

Vitalitus - Jaden JA Hastings
Charlotte Wendy Law continues this exploration into changing materials.  Her pieces features a collection of objects seemingly flash-frozen between states.  Lumps of jagged slag dot the work, the products of metallurgic experiments that bristle with danger and potential energy.  Much these are remains, the viewer unconsciously forensically engaging with them them and deducing the processes by which they were created.  In Action/Ode (Performance Remains) we see the charred remains of a piano, A Table is speckled with shattered detritus, smashed TVs glare out with imploded angry stares from beneath and A Metallurgic Sutra projects onto a curved, blasted piece of scrap metal.  This is post apocalyptic art; the ruins of the old world repurposed for the artistic needs of the new.  Viewed within this shiny new building it's a faintly sinister premonition of future disaster to come, occupying past and future simultaneously.

A Table - Charlotte Wendy Law
The idea of an object being neither one thing nor another, to be stuck in a transitional state is realised in a quite different way in Roderick MacLeod's Tempete du Monde (Bis).  Here we have a  furry white box with an inviting opening in the middle.  You stick your hand inside and... hello what's this?  It's rubbery, weirdly textured, kinda firm..  Yup.  It's a big fat dildo!  I always appreciate work that has the balls (no pun intended) to just straightforwardly be what it's about without hiding meaning under layers of obfuscation. 

Tempete du Monde (Bis)
Stick your hand in a yonic slit and get a hard cock in the hand for your trouble.  The piece is a collision of the sexes, forcing whoever interacts with it to confront the hermaphrodite inside them.  It's a piece with a punchline - you can get just as much fun out of experiencing it yourself as watching others pop their hand inside, their faces lighting up with a mixture of shock, surprise and excitement as they grasp the cock.

The one who feels like a fish in the water - Boris Raux
Also taking gender as a point of division is the always excellent Boris Raux, who's as much scientist as he is artist.  In two neighbouring pieces he explores gender through smell.  The feminine is symbolised by a bubbling, circular pool of water - steam billowing out over the rippling surface.  Masculinity is a meticulously constructed wooden box, reeking of rigidity and permanence.  Both emit wafts of carefully composed smells intended to symbolise the genders.  Smell is rarely exploited in art, it's abstract, technically difficult to create and unable to be replicated either in print or online.  This means Raux's work charts relatively new territory, finding a space somewhere in the middle of our senses; artwork we inhale, that lodges deep within our own bodies.

These were just a few of the works on display, but walking around you quickly understand how beautifully the cool, unemotional sterility of science complements the reflexive and wild chaos of art.  Both disciplines require a fierce intelligence to function at their best, and both require participants to be able to analyse and process the world around them into something fresh.  As a bit of a confession, when I first read about a group of art students tackling scientific means I feared the worst; expecting a naive gaggle of pieces that would tend towards woolly pseudoscience.

The Point of Departure - Jaden JA Hastings
I shouldn't have worried. After three exhibitions I can see how well these artists have understood the potential of the crossroads they stand at, fully grasping the intrinsic beauty of understanding, the thrill of deduction and the wonder of transforming the world around you into something fresh, new and fascinating. If these works are the conclusion to a strand of their education, it's an endpoint derived of methodical, analytical thinking coupled with an keen eye for stimulating the senses of the audience.  Colour me both impressed and happy that I got to see this body of work evolve over the last six months.

Friday, May 23, 2014

'Omar' (2013) directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Friday, May 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Omar is an emotional experience.  You'll feel fear, exhilaration, pride, envy, hate, sadness and anger.  Especially that last one.  Like the characters in the film you'll both bristle at the injustice and feel utterly impotent, getting mad as hell and not being able to do a damn thing about it.  Set in occupied Palestine, Omar gives us a taste of how living under a military cosh mutates social structures, twisting friends into enemies, enemies into allies and love into hate.

Our hero Omar (Adam Bakri) becomes the metaphorical battlefield over which the wider conflict is fought over.  He's a preternaturally handsome, athletic young Palestinian with an easy smile and a boyish crush on Nadia (Leem Lubany) that contrasts nicely with his adult revolutionary ambitions.  After suffering humiliation at the hands of the IDF, he retaliates, concocting a plan with his best friends Amjad and Tarek to assassinate an Israeli soldier. But soon consequences come knocking and Omar is banged up in a nightmarish torture camp where he undergoes intense psychological pressure to try and get him to turn collaborator for the occupying forces. 

The most obvious point of comparison is Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers.  Pontecorvo's film (and if you haven't seen it drop everything right now and go watch it) is the go-to cinematic text on urban insurgency, asymmetric warfare and the morality of revolutionary acts, so highly regarded it was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an warning of problems that would be faced by Coalition Forces during the Iraq War (not they apparently paid much attention to it). Omar and Algiers share a lot of filmic DNA, a visually similar setting, willingness to emotionally engage with both sides and, most importantly, a ballsy commitment to exploring violence as a valid response to oppression.

Nadia and Omar
Over the course of Omar we realise  that these characters and their respective countries are caught in an inescapable cycle of violent activity.  The casual (and occasionally murderous) brutality of the IDF breeds resentment in the Palestinian people, which bubbles over into ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings.  This in turn causes Israel to tighten the screw ever more on the beleaguered country, which results in further retaliation - and so forth.  

After a half century of this, both sides are ten kinds of screwed up. Israel has twisted itself into a monstrous oppressive force: able to argue in favour of bombing hospitals and schools, bulldozing people's homes and conducting programmes designed to starve the Palestinian people, who appear to be regarded as little more than subhumans by the extreme right-wing government.  Faced with this military might, many Palestinians feel justified in strapping explosives to themselves and suicidally taking out their frustrations on the Israeli population in general.  The two countries have become deformed by violence: Israel, founded as a safe haven, has become genocidal and Palestine simmers with antisemitism and religious extremism.

This situation is too big, controversial and unwieldy for cinema to tackle directly - so Omar pares everything down to the personal level.  At the core of the film is the relationship between Omar and Nadia, two performances shot through with fevered, unrequited passion.  In happier times they'd be starcrossed lovers, destined for a long and happy life together.  Here, we see their affection perverted by war, trust undermined with suspicion: in military eyes love becomes just another variety of bomb.  Omar is sprinkled with these perversions of affection, the conflict warping everything that's good and kind about humanity into something horrible.

Leem Lubany is particularly great: tragic and beautiful.
The darkest the film gets are the nightmarish torture sequences. Omar is suspended naked by his wrists in an infinite dark space that recalls Glazer's recent Under the Skin.  Here he's beaten to a pulp, sexually humiliated and mentally manipulated.  These sequences have a ring of 1984's Room 101 with Omar and Nadia playing Winston and Julia.  Abu-Assad goes to great lengths to show us a situation where there is no right decision. Whether you're innocent or guilty the end result is the destruction of the self, followed by being tossed into a dark box and forgotten.  In many ways it's a riposte to Zero Dark Thirty, here we identify with the man whose testicles are being burnt rather than the one doing the burning.

Make no mistake about it, Omar is a deeply partisan film, coming firmly down on the side of the Palestinian people - though its representation of events is so clear minded and grounded that it resists easy classification as propaganda.  Abu-Assad neatly sidesteps religion to the extent that I don't think the words 'Jew' and 'Muslim' are even spoken in the script; the involvement of individual political entities within Israel and Palestine are similarly minimised, with just a few scant mentions of Hamas and Al-Aqsa. Again, this all works reduces the conflict to the bare bones; the oppressors vs the oppressed.

Omar is an outstanding piece of cinema; beautiful, heartfelt, political and intelligent. It never sags over its 98 minute run time, none of the actors put a foot wrong and the core romance of Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany is devastatingly well-executed.  Testament to this is that, as the credits rolled, the audience sat still in stunned silence.   Omar presents no easy answers; the Israelis effortlessly dominate the Palestinians through technology, finances and firepower, the human consequences of their occupation  misery, distrust and death.  With the West squarely behind this oppression their only possible response is fragmented desperate acts of violence.  Omar will leave you angry and sad - angry that we live in world where oppression like this is tacitly accepted for diplomatic reasons, and sad that the end of this country's hardships isn't even a faint dot on the horizon.


★★★★★

Omar is released on May 30th.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

'Blended' (2014) directed by Frank Coraci

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"Blended is awful. Worse, it doesn’t even have the decency to be awful in an interesting way. I secretly love a bit of bad film rubbernecking, a ‘what-the-hell-were-they-thinking?’ trainwreck like Sandler’s Jack and Jill or That’s My Boy. Films like these are bonkers awful – so bad you can squeeze a fragment of masochistic pleasure from them. Not so with Blended. Here, Adam Sandler briefly steps away from his usual self-congratulatory manchild fare and attempts a schmaltzy, super-cutesy family romcom. 

And it’s even worse than usual."

Read the rest at We Got This Covered.



Blended is on general release from 23rd May

Monday, May 19, 2014

'Tom Pike: Incidents and Accidents' at The Foundry Gallery

Monday, May 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


You're a prehistoric man standing in an arid savannah.  The world is windless and a creeping dread takes hold in your brain.  Gazing out into the billowing grass your eyes instinctively flicker at each anomalous motion.  Too often your mind has played tricks on you, but you know full well that somewhere out there lies a hungry creature composed of muscle and teeth and you're only one mistake away from winding your way through its guts as just so much meat.  

So what does the mindset of a paranoid caveman have to do with an art exhibition in leafy Chelsea?  Tom Pike's work, composed of chaotic tangles of colours and shapes tweaks the same part of our brains that we share with our ancestors: the instinctive desire to transform the random into the structured, to reorder reality in order to spot the hungry tiger in the grass.  We do this without thinking every day of our lives: stare into the static of a detuned television set long enough and faces begin to loom out at you; fixate yourself upon the ripples of a pond and the whole world ripples in response; random constellations of clouds transform into animals, objects and actions.  

The notion of wringing order from chaos runs right through Pike's work; and it's hardly surprising to learn that his background is in architecture, a discipline that seeks to impose order upon an analogue world.  At first glance a piece like Favela might appear to be the child of a shredder and a book of swatches, but stare for a while and you see the cool logic of its construction; the shards of text defiantly emerging from washes of paint.  These elements bleed together, mingling on the canvas and creating a visual creole.

Favela
The snatches of text, pictures and colour overlapping with each other remind me of the fascinating accidental juxtapositions that you see when they're scraping decades of accreted adverts from the wall of a tube station.  I feel a bit perverse enjoying this effect: when an advert is new, complete and where it's supposed to be it's an annoyance out to trick me into giving them my money.  But when it's sliced up and the years have rendered whatever it's hawking irrelevant it becomes something far more interesting.

Cut up like a Burroughs manuscript, old billboards become the geological strata of Western culture. Delve back through time far enough and you see the faces of the forgotten famous grinning back at you, outdated fonts and unfashionable colours leering through the white surf of torn paper edges.  Pike's Revelation is an artificial attempt to recreate this process of destruction, trying his best to wrangle a chaotic, unpredictable process into conveying some definite meaning.  But what meaning?

Revelation
Though the sliced up compositions of this work hold our interest, it's worth stepping back a few paces and examining them as a whole.  The bright primary colours quote African and South American art (not to mention that one of them is actually called Favela).  There's a deeply embedded cultural resistance in Britain to avoid intense bright colour - possibly because we're oh-so-refined-and-tasteful, but maybe more prosaically because these are palettes that look best in direct, strong sunlight - of which we have precious little.

Warp and Weft
Warp and Weft, with the embedded rectangles studded across the canvas bring photographs of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to mind, or the slums of Quito to mind.  I imagine these places are what architects see in their nightmares; visions of a world without them.  Absent are careful planning, individualistic design, any consideration of how people move through a space and any conscious understanding of mood and history in the buildings.  In their place is are make do and mend constructions born of necessity; rickety piles of scrabbled corrugated iron succeed as buildings if they a) keep the rain off, b) keep the sun off and c) don't collapse and crush the inhabitants. 

Aftermath
Things come to a bit of a head in my favourite work, Aftermath.  Here the decollage effect manages simultaneously represent order and chaos - the design tangled and torn, yet progressing in relatively straight lines until *boom*, it's all disrupted by a wound in the design. This was described to me as an explosion, but I can't help but read it as an implosion, the gravity of the piece collapsing in on itself like a black hole - consuming itself.

There's a subtle satire here; the artist combining imagery and colours associated with the world's poorest people, splicing it with torn up fragments of British adverts and pop culture and placing the result in the gleaming white environment of a Chelsea art gallery; selling it in the middle of one of the richest neighbourhoods on the planet.  Presumably, given their surface cheeriness, more than a few of these will spend their days brightening the walls of the locals, something colourful to stand out against intense monochromatic designer chic.  Placing a little window into poverty in the midst of such opulence is a cheeky move, a subconscious reminder of the chasm between the rich and poor.

Perhaps I'm looking too deeply into the grass, seeing hungry tigers when there's nothing but random ripples of wind.  Running away from something that doesn't exist might sound overly skittish, but that's the nature of apophenia. Reading something as being about economic divisions and exploitation says more about my sensibilities than those of the artist, but I can't help but see (and enjoy) what I see. After all, it's better to run away from an imaginary tiger than to be caught by a real one.  

Unfortunately I attended the final day of the exhibition, but you can find out more about Tom Pike here: http://www.sandrahiggins.com/artists/tom-pike.php

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' (2014) directed by Bryan Singer

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Watching an X-Men movie in 2014 feels like sliding on a comfy old pair of slippers.  For nearly half my life I've been watching a topless Hugh Jackman quip and smoke his way around wood-panelled mansions, Patrick Stewart rolling around and offering well enunciated words of wisdom and Ian McKellen clearly loving hamming it up in a leather cape and silly hat. After 14 years and 7 films these characters feel like old friends, and though their films have ranged in quality from the good-to-competent (X-Men 2) to the diabolical (Wolverine: Origins) I've always had a kernel of good will towards them, if only because they've demonstrated a consistently great eye for casting.

Days of Future Past is very much an X-Men victory lap, bringing together almost every actor and character that's featured in the series thus far for a twisty-turny time travel caper.  Leaving aside the actual quality of the film for a moment, this is one of the greatest ensemble casts of the last decade, a real embarrassment of riches.  Director Bryan Singer, returning to the series after a decades absence, is supremely confident with the material - the time travelling plot necessitating juggling two ensembles and two entirely different settings all served up with dollops of special effects and quickly sketched character arcs.

There's also an neatly homoerotic element to much this stuff.
The basic plot is essentially a superhero reimagining of Terminator.  We open in a perpetually nighttime, post-apocalyptic hellworld of concentration camps and ruins. Skeletons litter the ground amid lightning strikes and giant, spotlight wielding killer machines.  Taking the place of Skynet are the Sentinels; omniscient invincible robots able to defeat our mutant heroes by copying their powers.  The X-Men have been reduced to a ragtag group desperately trying to survive, though still wearing costumes that look like they're on their way to a rave circa 1998.  As a mark of how bad things have gotten Wolverine has gone a bit grey, Magneto has lost his revolutionary spark and Professor X has never looked balder.

After a bit of super science hand-wavery it's decided that the best course of action is to send Wolverine back to the 1970s to stop the war from ever happening in the first place. Thus the series spirals back on itself to the rebooted cast of X-Men: First Class - where Wolverine has to play Blues Brothers and get the band back together.  With Wolverine as our guide we journey through a Kodachrome tinted soft rock superhero past of bell bottoms, paisley shirts and outrageously wide-brimmed hats.  There's even a villainous Nixon caricature!

Magneto is really nailing this outfit. Supervillainy with style!
It's a pretty convoluted set-up, but Singer keeps things light and most importantly, sustains momentum throughout.  Obvious effort has been expended on creating a dynamic screenplay where character goals are crystal clear at all times.  While the overarching plot of preventing the future war is always on character's minds, we have pleasant little diversions into heist caper, political thriller and even a smidge of rock star psychedelia.  It's a sprawling mess of a movie, but it's an entertaining, well-realised mess sprinkled with sharp dialogue and well-realised action sequences.

Some highlights are an appearance from newcomer Pietro Maximoff, a smart-ass superspeed kleptomaniac who's the centre of an equally beautiful and hilarious slow-mo action sequence soundtracked by Jim Croce's easy listening hit Time in a Bottle. Similarly enjoyable (as always) is Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, who serves mainly to deflate the film's sense of self-importance by making smartass comments through a fug of cigar smoke.  Probably the best thing in the movie is James McAvoy's Charles Xavier, who we learn has been reduced to a reclusive, depressed smack addict living in the squalid ruins of his mansion - a bit like Mick Jagger in Performance.

Wolverine slots so well into the 70s that I deeply want a scummy mutantsploitation flick.
One of the crucial hurdles that the X-Men series has to surmount is that it's all too easy to sympathise with Magneto.  Sure the guy may be bonkers and occasionally sadistic, but with his commitment to direct action and his cinematic superpowers he's an exciting and charismatic guy to be around, whether played by Fassbender or McKellen.  By contrast, the pacifistic liberality of Professor X usually leaves him looking a bit boring.  Mutants are allegorical minorities, and seeing murderous bigots being minced by a smug, hovering man in a silly helmet is deeply satisfying.  

So it's impressive that Days of Future Past puts the legwork in to actually get us onside with Professor X's viewpoint and recognise that Magneto is, as writer Grant Morrison memorably put it, "a mad old terrorist twat with daft ideas based on violence and coercion."  Fassbender still imbues the character with basic decency and a strong conscience but before our eyes we see him warping into a damaged, wounded person for whom the ends very much justify the means.

This is basically Magneto vs Nixon.
Things are pretty sharp visually too.  Singer recognises that after umpteen superhero films we're unlikely to be particularly wowed by Wolverine popping his claws out or Storm creating lightning - so interesting twists are made on their powers to keep things fresh. One particularly effective move is an action sequence shot in handheld faux Super 8.  It echoes the Zapruder footage, and from this new perspective the image of a blue skinned, naked woman with bright red hair is once more scary, alien and bizarre.

It's surprisingly invigorating material for a sixth sequel and by the time the credits roll it feels as if the X-Men franchise has had new life breathed into it.  I'd never consider myself an outright fan of these movies, but purely through their tenacity they've gathered some emotional resonance.  There's a unexpected nostalgia in revisiting the bustling hallways of Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and for a brief moment I'm once more that excited teenager sitting in a cinema in 2000, not quite able to believe that a major studio has made a fun, sharp and exciting blockbuster X-Men movie.

★★★★

X-Men: Days of Future Past is in cinemas May 22nd.

Friday, May 16, 2014

'Camille Claudel 1915' (2013) directed by Bruno Dumont

Friday, May 16, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The sculptor Camille Claudel was committed to an insane asylum in 1913. Thirty years later she died there. Camille Claudel 1915 shows us just three days of this thirty years, just a tiny fraction of her total incarceration though more than enough to demonstrate what it is to be locked into a hell with no escape, to have hope beaten from your body and  your mind destroyed.  To put it mildly, this is not a barrel of laughs.

Born in 1864, Camille Claudel was a talented sculptor, the disciple and lover of Auguste Rodin. After realising that Rodin wouldn't marry her she left him, secluding herself in a studio and living a detached, artistic life with just her cats for company. From a modern perspective we see that she was suffering the signs of mild, treatable schizophrenia: paranoia and delusions of grandeur.  After her supportive father died - she was summarily committed to an asylum on the orders of her brother, the writer and diplomat Paul Claudel.

We meet Camille adrift in a nightmare; surrounded by the screeching, the drooling and the manic - treated with clinically invasive politeness by the nuns that drift around the building like pitch-black, stony-faced ghosts.  Camille herself looks like a half erased pencil sketch, her beauty being systematically scrubbed away by a neverending procession of daily humiliations.  Mostly silent, Dumont locks his camera onto her face - pale skin stretched over her skull like an old bedsheet drying in the sun, eyes suspicious and darting, mouth pursed tightly as she tries her hardest not burst into tears.


Juliette Binoche is stunning in the lead role.  Under the asylum regime the old Camille is gradually disappearing, and so Binoche underscores every tiny tic and glance with a sense of loss.  Dumont has worked in about as much misery as 90 minutes of film can bear, but the biggest emotional wallop is the way Binoche plays Camille as someone who knows not only that she's gradually being disassembled but that the process is inevitable.  Every day she loses a tiny fragment of her genius and talent and it's never coming back.  There's a particularly utterly heartbreaking moment where Camille picks a piece of clay from the floor and compulsively begins to shape it, quickly realising that whatever artistic skills she once possessed have faded.  She tosses it away, disgusted and humiliated by what's happened to her, and bursts into tears.

Binoche does an awful lot of crying, sobbing and general weeping here - totalling probably around 10 minutes plus of the run-time. All the while Dumont dispassionately closes in her with clinical precision, the director eyeing her like he's a butterfly collector about to pin her to a board.  When she's not in floods of uncontrollable tears, Camille exists in state of tense, brittle stoicism, totally silent for large portions of the film.  When the dam does break the words spill uncontrollably from her as she bemoans the state of her life, the cruelty of those around her and her painfully simple desires for freedom and privacy.

Dumont contrasts Camille's abuse-victim poise with excruciatingly disturbing close-ups of the other residents.  The film is shot in a real-life asylum, and these supporting characters are played by the actual patients.  It's difficult to summarise what it feels to stare into their eyes.  They grin through mouths of smashed teeth, saliva drooling from their chins, staring blankly at the camera.  Their faces look subtly warped, devoid of modesty, vanity and self-awareness. Do they know they're in a movie?  Do they even know what's going on?  Dumont refuses to blink, holding these shots for as long as humanly possible, forcing the audience to intellectually and emotionally engage with the patients. It's exhausting and traumatising - we soon realise that this just another facet of Camille's life - the only sane woman in an insane world.


Striated right through the film is a strong Christian morality; the cold charity of the nuns couple with the omnipresent statues of the bovinely demure Virgin Mary that dot the institution. Eventually Camille's brother Paul arrives to visit, and we cut away from the asylum to track his progress through the countryside.  At one point he gets out of his car and kneels on the side of the road, making a disturbingly submissive prayer to God about putting his fingers in Christ's wounds.  Right from our introduction to the character it's pretty damn obvious that this guy isn't going to be much help to Camille.

His presence in the film signals an abrupt swerve into theological debate, including a slightly bizarre scene where he sits butt-naked in a monastery writing a psychologically byzantine letter about his relationship with God.  I was a bit dismayed that we'd cut away from Camille for a bit, and Paul's theological masturbations are, to be frank, kind of tedious.  This is the one misstep the film makes - though even this serves to illustrate the hypocritical division between Camille's socially unacceptable mental illness and societal subservience to God.

Dumont's film is so hellish, so overbearing and so devoid of hope that we're left in little doubt whether or not there is a God.  This is a cold world where Camille's beauty and art are smashed into fragments against spiky rocks.  Here, compassion and love are absent: if there ever was a God for Camille Claudel he's either dead or a complete monster.  The pious Christian smugness of viewing others misery as a necessary spiritual cleansing experience, "moving in mysterious ways" is exposed as a crutch to obviate their own guilt at their actions.

Camille Claudel 1915 will leave you angry and miserable.  We know from the off that, for all her hopes of release, Camille will never leave this nightmare, her final destiny a forgotten carcass tossed into an anonymous grave.  The mark of how good this film is is that you find yourself wanting to swoop into the film like a superhero, bash the walls of the asylum down and save her life.  But we can't.  She and everyone else in the film are just dusty bones; their misery eternal.  So I can't exactly wholeheartedly recommend Camille Claudel 1915 as a fun night out.  But it's a fantastic piece of cinema precisely for that reason: suffocating, harrowing and as grim as it gets. Be warned.

★★★★

Camille Claudel 1915 is released on 28th June

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

'Godzilla' (2014) directed by Gareth Edwards

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Gareth Edward's reimagining of the Godzilla franchise is loaded with potential. Firstly there was the excitement of a hot young director with one excellent film, Monsters, already under his belt being let loose with a big budget.  Then came one of the finest teaser trailers I've seen; as the camera pans over scenes of mass destruction with bodies lying everywhere we hear Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." All that scored by the monolith theme from 2001, climaxing with a tremendously angry roar from a colossal stompy monster.

Sold!  Sitting down in my seat last night I was deeply excited to see what Edwards had come up with. Twenty minutes in  I had that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that you get when you realise that you're watching a stinker.  Godzilla is not good.  Not by a long shot.  

Boiled down, the plot is that giant insectoid monsters appear, start wrecking up the place and then Godzilla turns up to beat the snot out of them.  It's a bit bare bones, but if you pay to see a Godzilla film then this is largely what you expect.  Wrapped around this is the human drama, and it's here that the film comes unstuck.  Working from an utterly inane, exposition-heavy script, the film proceeds to spend the majority of its runtime lumbering between a series of incredibly dull B-movie stereotypes.

The hero is as precisely as boring as he looks.
The prime offender in this is our hero, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  By quite a long shot he's the most blandest protagonist in a long time.  He has all the articulation of an action figure and the personality and motivations of a milporn videogame protagonist. It's a stretch to say he's even a character, functioning more as a convenient dramatic excuse to follow giant monsters around.  That'd be fine, but we spend an inordinate amount of time with Brody as he runs around doing dull (but I guess cheap to film) soldiery type things.

His boring presence very nearly sinks the film, though to be fair to Taylor-Johnson, nobody comes out of this smelling of roses.  Bryan Cranston, an incredibly talented actor, is just plain bad as the scientist-who-no-one-believes-until-it's-too-late stock character. Lost underneath a bizarrely unconvincing wig he looks embarrassed by his crap dialogue. The best I can say about him is that in a sea of bad acting, his performance is at least interestingly bad.  Ken Watanabe looks similarly checked out, a one note character who feels parachuted in from a different movie altogether, delivering his lines with the vague contempt they deserve.  As for the women?  There's two of them in Godzilla, their combined dialogue maybe taking up a page or two of script, both relegated to standing on the sidelines looking worried as the men fix things.

The women in this film are tasked with hugging children and gawping uselessly.
Finally, after perhaps an hour spent watching painful exposition and endless shots of worried people talking on telephones, Godzilla shows up.  The audience breathes out a collective sigh of relief; "alright, we sat through all that shite, now bring on the giant monsters!"  Then we immediately cut away from the giant monster fight to a kid watching blurry footage of it on TV news. Bullshit!

This cuts to the most obvious problem with Godzilla: not enough Godzilla.  The big guy is absent for most of the movie, only appearing properly in the final act.  Even when he does finally show up he's a bit underwhelming after all the hype.  Visually he's an indistinct dark green blob, his only distinguishing feature his back spines - other than that it's difficult to tell exactly what he looks like, what he's doing or even sometimes where he is in the shot (an impressive feat given he is 100m tall).  Compounding this is that he's nearly always wreathed in smoke, fog and clouds - and the action scenes take place at night. Compounding that is that in the 3D version I saw (which added precisely nothing to the experience), the glasses make a dark film even darker.

A very grey movie.  Godzilla is in this picture I think.
It all feels a bit sub-Pacific Rim, which did the whole giant monsters trashing cities thing much better than Godzilla does.  The Kaiju in that film spewed great blue gouts of neon blood everywhere, battles illuminated by fluorescence and flashes of colour.  By comparison Godzilla is muted and flat, the monsters grey, the sky grey and the clouds of dust around them grey - a disappointing choice given how colourful Monsters was.

Even Godzilla's subtext is starting to look clapped out.  Godzilla is as much a giant metaphor as he is giant lizard; a symbol of mankind's hubris and the dangers of messing with nature and so on. Here he comes to represent disaster, the scaly embodiment of tsunami and earthquake - the puny human characters realising that they are nothing in the face of all-powerful nature.  Fair enough, but that's the basic subtext of every single giant monster movie.  There is a slightly more interesting set of symbols linked with the giant insects, Edwards associating them with Fukushima and nuclear waste disposal - but it never really goes anywhere interesting.

Frustratingly there are occasional all-too-brief shots where everything is framed beautifully and sounds good - all moments without any actors in them. But there's no way it's worth sitting through the rest of the bilge that makes up the majority of Godzilla to get to these worthwhile bits.  I'd estimate that of 120 minutes there are, at maximum, maybe 10-15 minutes of worthwhile cinema in here.  Unfortunately this is a sloppy, boring and largely Godzilla-free waste of time. What a shame.


Godzilla is on general release from 15th May

Monday, May 12, 2014

Janelle Monáe at Brixton Academy, 9th May 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Janelle Monáe would be a superstar at any point in human history.  She'd have rocked the rock and roll stages of the 1950s, been a disco queen of the 1970s, probably been worshipped as some kind of minor deity by ancient Egyptians - hell - if she were around in prehistoric times you'd be finding cave paintings of a razor sharp dancer clad in black and white furs with adoring neanderthals gathered around her.  She's the whole package: all-dancing, all-singing, all-stylish, smart as a damn whip and supported by the one of the tightest backing bands about.

Monáe is a woman of many names; Cyndi Mayweather, the Electric Lady, ArchAndroid - yet this isn't a woman playing a series of roles, rather different aspects of personality filtered through prisms of style.  Dressed from top-to-toe in her trademark monochrome she arrives on stage to the cabaret nightmare beat of her Suite IV Electric Overture before launching straight into the insistent stomp beat of Givin Em What They Love - the first ten minutes of her set reaching the heights most big bands save for the finale. Having opened in the stratosphere, Monáe proceeds to shoot for the stars.


For two hours she rattles through hit after hit, an astonishingly strong setlist given that she's only on her second album (and an EP).  Standouts are the incredibly fun Dance Apocalyptic and Tightrope, two songs that it's impossible to resist wiggling your ass too - a smiling audience pulling their own shapes on miniature dancefloors carved out from the crowd.  Occasionally she'll pull out a cover, the best an astonishingly accomplished ABC by the Jackson 5 - Monáe conjuring up the ghost of the dead King of Pop with a tremendous moonwalk across to an swell of amazed applause.

It's all pretty damn great stuff, but the undisputed highlight for me was Cold War. Sobering up for a moment, Monáe stops and decries the kind of horrible world where 200 Nigerian schoolgirls can be sold into slavery and no-one lifts a damn finger.  This is tricky ground for a pop musician to tread on, and I had a tingle of worry that things were going to collapse into mawkish sentimentality.  But as the coolly synthetic 80s electronica of Cold War kicks in, her comments give her gravitas, transforming what's already a virtuoso performance into something with social relevance.  Midway through the song the lyrics devolve into a series of tortured, tuneful howls, a tiny moment that's easily one of the most powerful things I've seen a live singer do of late.


Throughout the show I couldn't help but compare and contrast it to Miley Cyrus' Bangerz show, which I'd seen a few days earlier.  Though both solo female pop artists, the two occupy opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum.  Whereas Miley wraps herself in flashy, intense videos and an ADHD influenced momentum, Monáe strips things down to the bone.  Her backdrop is simply a large blank white sheet that wraps around the stage, lit by various coloured lights, our eyes drawn down to the musicians rather than distracted by any maximalist frippery.

Both gigs were hugely entertaining, their aesthetic differences serving to amplify each artist's strengths.  But if I was absolutely forced to choose between them I'd go with Janelle Monáe - though it's the kind of show that relies on a truly exceptional artist at the centre of it all, one able to shoulder the burden of carrying the whole show on her shoulders. She's more than up to the task - a performance suffused with crazy amounts of confidence, at times while watching her you begin to believe she's capable of anything.

Watching her twist, spin and moonwalk across the stage, every molecule of her body geared to the rhythm, all the while singing in perfect tune made me feel like a complete turnip.  I can 'dance' - anyone can 'dance' - but I this is dancing dammit.  She moves with tireless energy, executing whipcrack precise motions, moving like a black and white flickering zoetrope.  She's a musical Bruce Lee, a complete pop package that, quite frankly, diminishes her musical contemporaries purely by occupying the same industry.


Janelle Monáe obviously has a long career ahead of her, and when she's treading stages in the 2050s she'll still be a hot ticket.  But she'll be echoing the performances she's doing right now.  Seeing her now is like seeing Michael Jackson in his Off the Wall phase, a young and hungry Prince or Elvis before he joined the army.  These are the gigs that people will one day look back on and wish they'd had the chance to attend.  I suspect Monáe's biggest days are still ahead of her, one really big hit single and she'll be deservedly packing out arenas around the world.  

For now though, seeing up close in a packed out Brixton Academy makes me feel privileged.  She is barnstormingly amazing at everything she does; destined to one day take her place in the pantheon of iconic artists.  I can't really imagine anyone not enjoying her gigs - so beg, borrow and steal tickets wherever you can!  

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