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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

'How to Train Your Dragon 2' (2014) directed by Dean DeBlois

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In 2010 DreamWorks Animation was primarily known for their onslaught of pop-culture referencing, celebrity-voiced kids films populated by cute animals that all make the same face.  Compared to the lyricism and beauty of Pixar's output, Dreamworks Animation was looking increasingly cynical and commercially driven. Then How to Train Your Dragon came out. The marketing made it look like just another identikit CG kid's flick, but soon people began to sit up and take notice: this was an animated film with a soul; a story about enacting social change told with a Miyazaki-esque fixation on the joy of flight and mysteries of nature.

After a slow start the film quickly benefited from excellent word of mouth and now, after a few straight-to-DVD shorts, videogames and a TV series, the franchise returns to the big screen with How To Train Your Dragon 2.  The big question: can DreamWorks Animation catch lightning in a bottle twice?

Set five years after the events of the original, we rejoin Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless to find them older, wiser and more focussed.  The town of Berk, having gotten over its antagonistic relationship with dragons, now lives in a state of happy symbiosis with them. Hiccup is now the de facto hero of the town, and his father Stoick eagerly anticipates him taking the reins and becoming Chief.  

Sample dialogue: "YEEEARRGGGGHHH!!!!"
Hiccup has other ideas.  Driven by wanderlust he speeds through the clouds on top of Toothless, excitedly mapping out new islands and devising new gadgets. By chance he runs into a group of dragon trappers working for a warlord named Drago. Drago is a half feral nutjob with a penchant for terrifying screaming and skill for enslaving dragons. He's out to bring the world under his heel, and only Hiccup and the town of Berk have the knowledge of dragons to stop him in his tracks.

Bubbling under all this is a debate about the merits of persuading people to change their minds through peaceful rather than violent means.  This thematically continues the last movie, Hiccup once again being an agent of change in a sea of people patiently explaining that "some things just can't be changed".  But, whereas his position was validated by the union of dragon and Viking before, the waters are muddied by Drago, whose hellbent mania resists reasoned debate.  Unfortunately the film never satisfyingly resolves the ethical problem it sets itself, somewhat half-heartedly concluding that maybe some people's minds really can't be changed.

Valka is awesome.
This colours the film with a tinge of pessimism.  As the characters have aged so the world has become a bit more serious, replete with large scale battle sequences and imagery of torture and death. This ain't exactly Lars von Trier, but there's a growing sense of the burden of responsibilities and the shucking off of youthful idealism.

But where the film stumbles thematically, it more than picks up the slack visually and aurally. The cinematography is stunning, though what else do you expect with Roger Deakins on board?  His technique in animation is to treat the virtual camera as if it were real, which gives the action weight and authenticity. The flight sequences are still as thrilling as they were in the original; the film making excellent use of 3D as it sends audiences spinning through the clouds and over oceans on Toothless' back.  Capturing this exhilaration is the key to making these films work; our enjoyment is mirrored in Hiccup's face - we wholly understand his passions, love and fears.

Technologically things have been bumped along a bit too in the last five years.  The 2010 film was no slouch, but improvements in facial animation are obvious.  These characters, particularly our hero, act.  I don't know if they use motion capture or not, but there's a realistic, almost naturalistic way to the way their tiny unconscious tics play across the character's faces.

I wish I had a pet dragon.
Most impressive animation-wise is Valka, a new character who's spent the last 15 years living with dragons.  She moves as if dancing, both otherworldly and mysterious.  All of my favourite moments in the film revolve around her character, and among a stable of broadly drawn comedic stereotypes she shines through as something genuinely fascinating.  Being voiced by Cate Blanchett helps, but it's the way she moves around a room that gives you goosebumps - feral, wild and loving all at once.

Her scenes are buoyed up by John Powell's playfully epic Celtic score.  My highlight is the music played when Valka and Hiccup fly together, the characters moving between a bustling flock of dragons.  Their mutual happiness is infectious and for a moment all the drama drops away and we're left with the simple pleasures of two people discovering a mutual bond.  The only minus point is the early inclusion of the rather out of place pop song Where No One Goes, whose processed vocals sit at odds with the folkish, medieval spirit of the rest of the score.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not as good as the original.  There's the occasional overlong lull in momentum; the film doesn't quite have the confidence to be wholly sincere, peppering otherwise touching scenes with gags; the thematic stuff is a bit disappointing and the thrill of discovering a new world has begun to evaporate.  But despite all that, this is still a very good movie, and though it doesn't hit the heights of How to Train Your Dragon, it's definitely a worthy followup.


How to Train Your Dragon 2 is released July 11th

Screen Robot Podcast Episode 9

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

My appearance on the Screen Robot Filmcast with Dominic Mills & Liam Dunn reviewing The Fault in Our Stars, Jersey Boys, Walking On Sunshine and others.

Hear me sing Don't You Want Me Baby!

Monday, June 23, 2014

'Deux Chevaux: A Performance by William Mackrell', 21st June 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's Saturday in London and the sun beats down on a grateful city.  In Hyde Park the crowds lobster themselves red, sucking down cider and munching expensive crisps.  Swans slide serenely across the surface of the Serpentine as rays of light glitter up into the sky.  A man is tethering two white horses to a Citroen 2CV.  It's everything you'd expect to find on a balmy June day in the park.  Except that last thing.

Hunkered down at the edge of the waters, surrounded by a gaggle of photographers, journalists, documenters and curious passers-by, a performance is beginning to take shape. Horses contentedly chew hay as competent-looking burly men in pastel polo-necks soberly assess a harness.  Men and women in hi-viz vests eye the whole affair with a vague professional suspicion.  An Irish Wolfhound trots about obliviously, an inscrutable expression on its face.  This soon will be Deux Chevaux; artist William Mackrell out to provide something out of the ordinary for the Saturday parkgoers.

As the horses are harnessed to the car it begins to roll through the park, hooves clop-clopping along the road.  Tourists whip out their phones to snap a quick one for the Instagram feed.  This is an old-fashioned sort of spectacle, a polite intrusion into everyday routine, something "you just don't see everyday".  To give credit to Mackrell the public are eating this up, the journey a parade of gooberish double-takes as the whole affair begins its long trundle around Kensington, Westminster and Chelsea.

Mackrell and co have a busy day ahead of them.  First the Serpentine, then a whistlestop visit around the big Museums, the Royal Albert Hall and various squares before finally wrapping up at Andipa Gallery for celebratory drinks.  Pulling something like this off smoothly and safely is no small order and on chatting to the organisers I learn that this venture has generated vast, teetering stacks of paperwork: applications, permits, explanatory letters and the other detritus of correspondence.  There's such a colossal amount of effort that's gone into this that the idea of making a piece of art about that has been floated.

For most of London's history, the primary method of transportation has been horse-drawn carriage, a privilege now generally only extended to the Lord Mayor and the Queen and her familial subordinates.  Their gilded, fairytale coaches draw gawps from crowds around the world along with coos of "aw, how quaint!".  Bullshit pageantry like this is embarrassing stuff; a medieval aristocratic albatross around the neck of a forward-thinking progressive cities. But, like some gigantic, wizened whale, London has picked up the barnacles of tradition and they're a tricky creature to shake.

Mackrell's piece subverts this high-falutin' ceremonial guff, replacing the chintzy baubles of establishment with Citroen's minimalist classic, the 2CV.  This is the car described as "the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervour". Curved and boxy, it's a tribute to the twin gods of mass production and budget egalitarianism.  The car, famously referred to as the "two horsepower" (deux chevaux) quickly became one of the iconic automotive designs of the 20th century, nestling snugly between the VW Beetle and the Mini.

In realising this nickname, Mackrell explains that he's "challenging the interaction of natural and mechanical power".  The combination binds together the two biggest engines of London transport from the last 1000 years, highlighting both the differences and similarities between the two.  Before things kicked off I stood next to the horses, enjoying that pleasantly nostalgic smell of horse-on-a-hot-day and waxed leather.  This scent was soon joined by another, as the horse interrupted my reverie by taking a splattering dump on the roadside. The horseshit stunk up the place pretty sharpish, but then if you're going to hang around horses you've got to expect this kind of thing.

As I wrinkled my nose, it struck me that the dividing the mechanical and the biological is a false distinction.  Car and horse alike produce waste; the real problem is how you deal with it.  Once we're on the road, horse and car symbiotically bound together, the distinction becomes even blurrier.  Mackrell steers the car, while a coachman spurs on the horses, which tug the car down the street.  Four brains, four wheels, 12 legs, four arms - car, horse and man bound together into one chimera.  As this Frankenstein's monster progresses through London it puts paid to the lie that is "natural and unnatural".  Much as in the horse-drawn car, we're an integral part of a wider, natural whole - the artificial elements within it no less natural than a spider's web or bird's nest. 

Deux Chevaux is a tightly wound bundle of meaning that does a lot with very little.  I'd heard that this has been attempted before, but only in static form - the gallery unable to get permission to actually move the construction through London.  As far as I'm concerned it only works in motion, the harmony of horse and car moving through London like lighting the touchpaper on a firework.  Even on the simple level of a spectacle, Deux Chevaux succeeds: brightening up what was already a pretty damn bright day.  Well done to everyone involved for conceiving, planning and executing this.

Thanks to Andipa Gallery for inviting me along.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Walking on Sunshine (2014) directed by Max Giwa & Dania Pasquini

Sunday, June 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Films like Walking on Sunshine make you think al-Qaeda might have a point after all. Like anybody else, I’ve got serious problems with the basic tenets of Islamic Fundamentalism, but it’s got to be better than this. Produced with a cynical eye towards snaring World Cup widows, this 80s jukebox musical is a stunningly accurate simulation of being manacled to a chair in a dodgy karaoke bar and forced to watch a bunch of jerks tunelessly disembowel pop standards.

Walking on Sunshine is released June 27th.

'Chef' (2014) directed by Jon Favreau

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In 2010 Jon Favreau had the world at his feet.  With the rapturously received Iron Man having kicked off the gargantuan Marvel movie franchise he was  Hollywood's new blocksbuster golden boy.  As they began preproduction on the billion dollar grossing The Avengers he was the presumptive director, ready to ascend to the heights of a Spielberg or a Nolan.  Then it all went a bit wrong. The Marvel execs stuck their beak into Iron Man 2, constantly tossing Favreau last minute script revisions and crowbarring in plot elements for upcoming films.  This, coupled with financial wheeling and dealing resulted in a mess of a movie, a production so frazzling Favreau openly worried whether his career as a director was kaput.

And then he made Cowboys & Aliens.  Enough said.

Now, after three years away from the directors chair, he's returned with Chef.  Gone is the CG bombast, in its place a small-scale indie film about a talented artist stymied by thoughtless suits who want him to keep on putting out the same old schlock.  There's more than a whiff of autobiography here, especially as Favreau, writes, directs and stars. Getting back to basics with a tightly crafted personal movie like this is a kind of personal exorcism, taking ones demons and moulding them into art.

Favreau plays Carl Caspers, Head Chef at a prestigious restaurant.  This is a man entirely committed to food, devoting his entire day to sourcing ingredients, preparing menus and actually cooking it.  A few years ago he was the hot new chef in town, doyenne of the food critics and achingly fashionable.  But now, through little fault of his own, he's become complacent.  The owner of the restaurant is eager not to mess with a winning formula, meaning that Casper's been serving the same menu for what feels like forever - every time he attempts to mix things up a bit he's immediately shot down.

Things all come to a head when he gets a snooty review from an online critic (hmm...). Casper blows his top, ending up as a much-mocked viral video.  Sacked from the restaurant and hiding in reclusive disgrace he eventually concludes that he should run a travelling food van where he can have total control over what he serves.  And so we learn that the path to redemption is paved with ham and cheese toasties.  

In a bit of a perverse twist, much of what makes Chef enjoyable is also the reason why it gets a little tedious.  For example, the practically pornographic fascination with food preparation is obviously borne of Favreau's actual passion for food.  In the opening scenes of the film you watch him slice an onion up, his skill with a kitchen knife telling us all we need to know about both the character and the actor's skill.  But injecting so much of yourself into a film makes it feel Favreau cleaning out his closet, and the main subplot of connecting with his precocious son is served up with a few too many spoonfuls of sugar.

That said, Chef is such a breezy, optimistic and modest film that it's difficult to dislike. Favreau is a solid (though not exceptional) actor, but this role plays to his matey, intelligently masculine traits.  Fortunately he's ably supported by an excellent supporting cast including Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman Oliver Platt and an all too brief appearance from his real life best bud, Robert Downey Jr.  I guess when you're a Hollywood bigshot it's easy to corral A-listers for a day's shooting here and there.  That said, they're stars for a reason, and this stable of charismatic characters goes a long way to buoying up the film.  Heck, even the cute kid, Emjay Anthony, is tolerable enough.

Decently handled though it is, the bonding with his son element of the story is riddled with cliche.  What felt far more relevant to me was the way online critics are treated.  I saw this at a press screening, surrounded by others of my ilk, and as Favreau righteously rages against those that smugly sit behind a keyboard and dissect what others have poured their soul into there was a ripple of uncomfortableness across the room.  Favreau isn't so gauche as to broadside against all critics, but there is the definite sensation that the Oliver Platt character is a punching bag against which he can beat out his frustrations.  Maybe in future I will reflect before I dish out some particular cruelty... (nah).

Anyway, Chef is unlikely to attract too much opprobrium as it's pretty good.  It's slight and inconsequential, but the tale of a man discovering inner peace through hocking toasted sandwiches to hipsters just about works.  The passion for cooking burns from the screen; lending it the credibility that's a large part of why it works.  The film is undoubtedly some form of therapy for Favreau, but it's a pleasant and interesting enough therapy to eavesdrop on.


Chef is on general release from June 25th

Thursday, June 19, 2014

'Cosi fan tutte' by Pop-up Opera, 18th June 2014

Thursday, June 19, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Up to now I've had a fractious relationship with opera.  I've always appreciated it, looked forward to it and on the whole just about enjoyed just about everything I've seen, but at the same time I've never really felt that burning passion that you see in proper opera lovers . One of my favourite films is Fitzcarraldo, and I've always envied the title character's passion for Caruso, to the extent that his mission is to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle.  So it's unfortunate that on the rare occasions I've been to the ENO I've never quite felt it.  

Partially this is because orchestral music has a soporific effect on me: no matter how much I'm enjoying myself it's as if I've been hit with a tranquilliser dart.  Partially it's because when I do go to the ENO they put me in the highest, most distant seat in the house, making the people on stage looking like particularly tuneful ants.  Partially it's because I often don't know what the hell is going on; "Why is that fat guy stabbing himself?" or "Wait, is that woman a ghost?".  All these reasons leave me with the queasy sensation that I'm the only person in the room not quite getting it.  But after seeing Pop-up Opera's Cosi fan tutte I can proudly say that I have genuinely enjoyed and appreciated an opera.  Not just any opera either, a proper one, by Mozart and everything!  

Formed in 2011, the company is dedicated to making opera "enjoyable and inviting", dragging it out of drafty establishment halls where red wine is served at £6 a glass by snooty barmen and into the obscure dives I'm more comfortable hanging out in; boats made of scrap metal; a garlic farm; tunnels under London; candlelit underground caverns.  Last night was in the slightly more prosaic (but no less pleasant) The Whip bar above The Running Horse pub, near Bond Street.

Eve Daniell as Fiordiligi
Walking into the bar I spied an old Victorian sofa in the front row and made a beeline for it, sinking into the comfortably squashed cushions.  Soon I had a frosty mint julep in my paws and with the evening sun streaming in I was happy before anyone had even warmed up their voicebox.  My mood only improved as I quickly realised that there's a huge difference between watching an opera singer trotting round a huge stage a hundred meters away and having them right in your face, staring straight at you, singing their guts out.  At this distance you can see their tongues trilling in their mouths, their chests rising and falling with the music, their cheeks vibrating as the music flows out of them.

And what music!  When a decent number of the cast are in full flow the music fills up this small room and spills out into the bustling London evening.  I don't have the ear to be able to tell an excellent opera singer from a 'merely' great one, but everybody in this cast throws themselves into the music with a combination of technical excellence and personality, priming everything with great heaping dollops of emotion and sincerity.  This is most clear in the two women the opera revolves around, Fiordiligi and Dorabella; their torn hearts and confused passions painfully palpable in their arias, particularly in Fiordiligi's despair as she slumps over a fireplace, trying her hardest to convince herself of her love.

Oskar McCarthy as Guglielmo
This despair aside, Cosi fan tutte is most definitely comedy (and a very funny comedy at that). In my experience, the further you climb up the cultural ladder the less funny comedies become, so I was surprised to not only find myself laughing a lot, but actually being encouraged to laugh (even over the singing).  Much of the humour stems from the wonderful title cards projected overhead during the performance.  These range from a wry description of the scene you're about to see, an aside to the audience gently mocking the opera's extremely questionable gender politics or just poking fun at the character's ridiculous situation.  For example; as the women decry the arrival of their foreign suitors we read "Nigel Farage told us this was going to happen!" or when the (super obvious) identity of a character is revealed; "Should have gone to Specsavers...".

Also (surprisingly given that the entire thing was sung in Italian), the plot was very easy to follow.  I chalk this up to a performance philosophy which understands that the precise words sung aren't hugely important, it's the way in which they're sung.  When I attend more conventional operas I get caught up reading the surtitles and miss out on the minutia of the music, so the lack of distraction here is very welcome.

Clementine Lovell as Despina
While the cast was uniformly fantastic, I've got to single out Clementine Lovell as one of the reasons I had such a great night.  As the maid Despina she's the comedy heart of the play. Even when she's not the centre of attention, you can glance over to her and guarantee she'll be doing something funny. One of the biggest laughs in the show was a simple facial expression by her, a "get a load of this guy!" flick of the head as another character puffed themselves up.  A definite highlight was her solo performance during It's a Maid's Life, a perfect showcase of a vibrant, chaotic, pleasantly playful character.

Pop-up Opera's raison d'être is to awaken new audiences to the possibilities of opera, and in this individual instance they've more than succeeded.  I'm incredibly happy that, hand on heart, I can now say I've truly appreciated and enjoyed an opera.  Up to now I thought it might never happen, but the professionalism, friendliness and sheer energy of their Cosi fan tutte was just the ticket.  I can't really imagine anyone that wouldn't enjoy this.

Cosi fan tutte is popping up over the place until 31st July. Tickets here

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

'Jersey Boys' (2014) directed by Clint Eastwood

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

When I sat down to watch Jersey Boys I couldn't have given less of a toss about Frankie Valli or The Four Seasons.  134 minutes later I still didn't.  It's not that I don't like the music, but I find it hard to get passionate about middle-of-the-road 60s pop sung by a man who sounds like he's got his balls caught in a vice.  So this music biopic sinks or swim on its story and characters, with mixed results.  

Based on the hit musical, Jersey Boys on screen eschews most of the conventions of a the stage version, opting instead for treating the story a straight music biopic.  Fortunately the life of Frankie Valli is interesting enough in its own right, even disregarding the music.  This is a solidly blue collar examination of the music industry - with the emphasis on industry. Valli and his bandmates Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio are workmen rather than artists, treating the production of pop music more as a professional craft rather than as any kind of higher calling.  

The vast majority of music biopics deify their subjects as enigmatic and individualistic geniuses; a tactic that allows us to admire them from afar and forgive them when they screw up.  Jersey Boys is a bit different: Frankie Valli and his bandmates are emphatically not  geniuses.  Instead they're guys with decent musicianship who've concluded that their best chance of a comfortable life is to play some songs, get paid and go home at the end of the day.

Taking place largely chronologically, we follow The Four Seasons from their humble beginnings as neighbourhood kids on the humdrum streets of New Jersey, through their gradual ascent to stardom, to the top of the pop charts and finally through their acrimonious separation.  There's more than a dab of the mob film in the mix too, and to my eyes it looks as if Eastwood watched Scorsese's Goodfellas a bunch of times in preparation.  Both films share a grubby, pop-inflected rags to riches optimism, that becoming successful means coming under more pressure and both come to the conclusion that their working class heroes are ultimately pawns in someone else's game.

Also it's a bit like That Thing You Do, which I've always thought was a tad underrated.
There aren't many directors with more of safe hand on the tiller than Eastwood, and he brings in the movie with a minimum of fuss and a professional straightforwardness.  There's very little in the way of stylistic tics or visual frippery here, just utterly competent film-making.  The closest we get to experimental are the character's frequent breaking of the fourth wall to directly narrate what's going on to the audience, Wayne's World style.  At its most audacious (which isn't saying very much), Eastwood has his characters speak to the camera mid-song so, for example we get the bass player explaining his precise grievances with the band mid-performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

It's a similar story performancewise.  John Lloyd Young gives what is probably an accurate portrayal of Valli (though admittedly I have no idea how the real Valli behaves), managing to navigate between naivety and cynicism with as little fuss as possible, though he does pull off the on stage persona.  Slightly more interesting is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, whose maniacally egotistic behaviour instigates most of the drama in the film.  He takes us from loveable rogue, through tolerable scumbag and finally to pathetic moron in a nicely layered performance.  There are precious few heavyweights backing up this relatively inexperienced cast though, though Christopher Walken makes a game effort as a chilled out New Jersey mobster, he's not really given a lot to do.

That's Joseph Russo as Joe Pesci on the left.  Yes, that Joe Pesci.
It's all a bit perfunctory to be honest, a music biopic paint-by-numbers.  They go through all the old cliches of the genre; but what was exhilarating in films like Walk the Line is sadly lacking here, primarily due to a rather charisma-free protagonist in Valli and some less than heartfelt music.  They even, repeatedly, do the one creaky old musobio cliche I hate the most.  Paraphrasing; someone says offhandedly "Hey Frankie, you gotta walk like a man!". Cut to Frankie staring off into the middle distance with an inspired look in his eye. Cut to the band playing the song "Walk Like a Man" on TV.  Cut to a man in a suit handing Frankie a gold record; "You gotta 'nother hit Frankie!".  This is tired old bullshit.

I guess the word I'm searching for is mediocre.  Coming from a director with a pedigree as strong as Eastwood this is a disappointment.  As someone utterly neutral on the music I was expecting the film to explain why it's so great (like Walk the Line did), but Jersey Boys never comes close.  In fact, the film arguably treats being a musician and making music as a grinding, joy-free chore.  This makes it difficult to care, either about the characters or the music.  

Jersey Boys isn't a bad film by any means, but it's difficult to gauge any reason to actually watch it save for a pre-existing love of Frankie Valli.  It's just sort of there. Maybe the musical is better.


Jersey Boys is released June 20th

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) directed by Josh Boone

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Fault in Our Stars opens with a big promise: this isn't going to be one of those syrupy, schmaltzy Hollywood films about cancer.  No, this film is, according to our protagonist and narrator, “truth”: a story to be told without resort to cliche and sentiment.   

What a load of a bullshit! 

The Fault in Our Stars is, in reality, 'yer standard terminal illness tearjerker, with diseases that leave our principals looking California-photogenic 'til the end, tons of soft focus smooching in Autumnal parks and great big dollops of heartfelt, acoustic guitar indie music. It's a straight-up weepie, but it's a decently put together weepie, and successful to the extent that it actually wrung a tear or two from my cynical bones.

Our cancer-crossed lovers are Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort).  Hazel is smart, literate and funny, Gus is adventurous, brave and imaginative.  They even have a lot in common other than the fact that they're dying. After a meet-cute at a support group they quickly become entangled in each other's lives and we watch as their feelings and attachments to each other develop into real love.  It's pretty standard teenage romance stuff, though with the morbid twist that the primary bond is their impending deaths.  As the months tick away their respective conditions worsen, the film exploring the limits of romance when your body is consuming itself.

Like a hunkier Michael Cera
Unsurprisingly, a story of two cancer suffering teenagers finding love just as they're about to die is pretty damn depressing.  The script leavens this with black (well, beige anyway) humour, but there's never any ignoring the essential tragedy of the situation.  Woodley and Elgort are both decent enough in the lead roles; and successfully navigating the tightrope between cute and annoying (though they sure do wobble). They're ably supported by two heavyweights in the supporting cast; a bearded and grumpy Willem Dafoe and a sensitive Laura Dern as Hazel's mother.  This isn't a film defined by great performances (particularly a miscast Sam Trammel as Hazel's father), but Dern in particular brings her A-game, giving a masterclass in how to imbue a stock role with development and character.

The cancer movie has practically become its own subgenre of late.  My favourite is 2011's excellent 50/50, which possesses a sharp as hell script and a willingness to get its hands dirty with the nitty gritty of what chemotherapy and terminal illness do to a person.  The nadir is the execrable Now Is Good with Dakota Fanning, a piece of irredeemable crap so gloopily saccharine that I rooted for the leukaemia.  The Fault in Our Stars falls somewhere in the middle, textually up front about the realities of cancer, yet afraid to cinematically go the distance.

My suspicions are that this stems from adaptation difficulties.  In John Green's novel of the saem name, it's easy to identify with these character's personalities without having to grapple with the visual toll of disease.  It'ss up to the reader to visualise the characters a process allowing them a certain degree of self-censorship.  The problem Boone faces is that it's difficult from both a production and aesthetic viewpoint to get genuinely ill-looking actors; firstly because his hot, in-demand teen stars don't want to slim themselves down to a skeleton or shave their heads, and secondly because genuinely dealing with the disease runs the risk of overpowering a sweet love story with body horror.

There is also a pretty disturbing subplot about this guy in the shades getting his eyeballs surgically removed.
The solution is simply to handwave it, the result being that throughout the two lovers are photogenic, healthy looking, beautiful people.  In The Fault in Our Stars, the real way we know a character is going downhill is when they begin wearing what I dub 'The Woollen Hat of Death' – cinematic shorthand that an ill character is about to be brown bread.  Tactics like these (which I think stem from 1970s Love Story) come close to undermining the entire production; especially as they went to such lengths to explain that this isn't going to be like those other wimpy cancer films.

What saves the film is Josh Boone's exemplary grasp of how to manipulate the audience. The book it's based on is young adult lit, and I suspect the target audience of teenage girls is going to absolutely adore this.  Boone goes for their tear ducts like a man possessed, deploying every cinematic trick in his arsenal to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of the material. His prime weapons are an uncanny instinct for when best to deploy a pop song (specifically the recurring use of M83's Wait), an occasionally moving and poetic snatches of dialogue and some nice (if somewhat blunt) visual metaphors.  By the final scenes I could hear hankies being blubbed into and sniffles all around the theatre. Even I, a seasoned film critic, ended up with a little something in the corner of my eye.

Regardless of its many flaws, The Fault in Our Stars has to be judged a rough success simply on that front.  It's an unashamedly sentimental, manipulatively cheesy bit of cinema, but like a crap comedy that nonetheless makes you laugh, it must be doing something right.  It's certainly a vast improvement on Josh Boone's last film Stuck in Love, on the whole I'm glad that my wish that he'd be run over by a bus never came to pass.


The Fault in Our Stars is on general release from 19 June

Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Punching Jane' at The Courtyard Theatre, 11th June 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Please note that the production company has requested I not use their photos.  I am happy to oblige. In their place please enjoy these pictures of cats in wigs.

 Punching Jane is a play about brawling 18th Century prostitutes.  It is awful.  Sat in the front row I watched proceedings with a rictus grimace, quietly amazed at how damn bad it was.  Eventually my amazement turned into astonishment as, miraculously, it got worse.  Bad theatre isn't especially pleasurable to watch; at least with a bad film you can reassure yourself that everybody involved has since moved onto better things and gotten over it.  Not so in theatre: you're watching people embarrass themselves right now. Every so often you catch a glance of desperation from the cast that seems to say "save me".  But both they and I know there is no saving them.  Not now.

The plot concerns a brothel "in the seedy backstreets of 18th Century London".  The previous owner has died and his arsehole son has taken over.  His obvious twattishness is causing much consternation among the prostitutes: Jane, Mary, Molly and their manager, Mother Elizabeth.  The meat of the play concerns the tangle of ambitions as to who's going to end up running the brothel.  Is it going to be the clapped out and bitter veteran hooker Mary or the rootin' tootin' headbuttin' newcomer Jane?  Layered on top of all that is a load of bullshit interpersonal drama that owes more of a debt to Hollyoaks than it does to the mean streets of old London.

Most of the problems stem from the subject matter, which is inescapably trashy. After all, a tale of bawdy, bare-knuckle-boxing prostitutes, even if handled by the best company in the land, is inevitably going to be pretty camp.  The worst thing you could do is to go at it completely straight-faced - yet this is precisely what Punching Jane does.  The end product is roughly artistically equivalent to softcore porn, but without the sex.  

Nobody comes out of this smelling of roses.  I have most sympathy for the cast, who, while all awful to various degrees, have at least proved the aphorism that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Everything is mired in histrionics, as if the director just doesn't know when to stop telling his cast to go bigger.  The result is series of caricature performances that more closely resemble a night at Madame JoJo's Tranny Shack than any realistic portrait of femininity.  Rubbing salt into the wound is that most of this is delivered in embarrassingly bad Dick van Dyke-ish cockney accents.  The nicest thing I can say is that the women are fascinatingly bad, as opposed to the male performances, which are just regular brand bad.

But I suppose there's only so much you can do with a dog of a script that goes nowhere and says nothing.  This is excruciatingly bad dialogue, apparently assembled Burroughs-style by cutting up The Big Book of Victorian Sex Slang (or maybe just a dog-eared copy of From Hell) tossing the pieces into the air and seeing what random configurations they end up in.  So you have characters endlessly banging on about "bubbies" or,  memorably, their "south-mouth" *shudder*.  The quiet nadir is a short line late in the play where one character yells "you ungrateful ingrate!".  Think about this for a second, and realise that it got through (presumably) many script re-writes and at least one previous production without anybody pointing out just how dumb it is.

That said, picking out specific lines is a fool's errand: it's all bad.  The basic tone of the script is equivalent to something you'd expect to see sprouting from the first months of a drama degree.  The swearing and sex feels adolescently gleeful, as if the writers have just left school and sniggeringly realised that without their teachers looking over their shoulder nobody can stop them saying fuck, cunt, shit and piss as much as they want.

If there was one thing that I expected to at minimum to be passable it was the stage fighting.  After all, you don't stage a play about bare knuckle boxing without having a decent handle on how to convincingly clean someone's clock on stage.  Anyway, Ed Young, the fight director (and co-writer and actor), describes himself as a "specialist in combat for stage and screen".  After seeing Hiraeth Artistic Production's Hamlet at the Riverside Theatre recently and being deeply impressed by how tangible those blows were, I was primed for something special here.  This didn't hold a candle to it, being painfully over-choreographed without any sense of impact or reaction, more like watching a slow motion rehearsal of the real thing.  The one-on-one fights aren't so bad (and there's an argument that some of it is supposed to be playfighting), but the only reaction the final brawl drew from the audience was an embarrassed chuckle.

Finally a short word on set and costumes.  While obviously working from a restricted budget, they're (I guess predictably by this point in the review) dire.  All I'll say about the scenery is that it looks like someone has raided a skip and scattered the contents haphazardly around the stage.  As for the costumes, in a cost-cutting measure they've decked the male characters out in black rubber wellies.  As they clomp around the stage they look less like historical n'er do wells and more like they're down the farmer's market hocking expensive cheese. (The nicest thing I can say about the production is that the women's costumes are basically okay.)

From top to bottom, from side to side, any way you look at it, Punching Jane sucks - the only prostitution going on here is that of the cast's respective talents. Most tellingly of all, despite us being informed that this would be a 90 minute show with an interval, they just ploughed straight the whole thing in one go.  The only reason I can see for doing this is the fear that if they did have an interval, the majority of the audience would seize the opportunity to make a discreet exit.  I certainly would have.  This is hands down the worst play I've seen all year.

Punching Jane is at the Courtyard Theatre until 29th June, 19:30. Tickets £14/£11 (conc).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

'Ellas' by Maripaz Jaramillo at Gallery Petit, 10th June 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The London summer is finally here.  How long it's going to stick around nobody knows, so let's enjoy it while we can  This onset of light, heat and happiness casts the city in a fresh light - makes for the perfect backdrop to the current exhibition at Sandra Higgins' Gallery Petit, Maripaz Jaramillo's Ellas.  These are paintings of women rendered in simple, bright chunks of colour - women almost literally radiant, like they're lit from within. 

Maripaz Jaramillo, born in Manizales, Colombia in 1948, has had a stratospheric rise through the world of Colombian art.  Following formative years at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Jaramillo spread her wings and moved first to Cali "a hot sensuous city" to London to study graphic art at the Chelsea College of Art, then in Paris, before finally returning to Bogotá.  Over these years she carved out a well-deserved reputation as an eminent Colombian artist. Her recent projects include painting a portrait of President Juan Manuel Santos and his wife, and contributing a mural (in the same expressionist style as the Ellas pieces) to Medellin University.

Facing these paintings is like staring into a 100 watt bulb, a luminosity that practically requires sunblock.  These bright colours have some instinctive cheering effect on the brain, and, coupled with the sunlight beaming through the windows of the gallery, makes them thrum with life. I later learned the colouring of the yellow skin arises from a trip to Egypt.  There Jaramillo discovered that traditionally women are to be painted with yellow skin as they're supposed to stay out of the sun (and men in browner shades). 

This tradition is news to me - and as a mark of where my tastes generally lie my first thought was of The Simpsons.  But this might not be so off the mark - part of the reason The Simpsons became so internationally popular was because the yellow hue of their skin allows whichever ethnic group is watching the show project their own nationalities onto them.  For example, in the Middle East they read the characters as Middle-Eastern and so on throughout the world.  

The universality of this tone has the same effect in Jaramillo's work; allowing us not to see these women as individuals of any particular nationality or ethnicity, but as representations of a universal feminine joy; the simplicity of their features allowing us to project our own memories and experiences of pleasure, laughter and exuberant energy onto them.  This subtle connection means the paintings conjured up  half-forgotten happy memories, the sight of a lover tossing their hair in a breeze on a sunny day, or the simple pride in making someone you care about laugh.

These slabs of colour, coupled with the minimalist approach to the features also reminded me of the work of Patrick Nagel.  Nagel is, to put it mildly, pretty damn unfashionable in 2014; the art of a hair salon in dire need of a renovation and of dusty old Duran Duran LPs.  Cheesy (and let's face it, kinda sexist) though his work is, there are certain aesthetic principles he shares with Jaramillo's Ellas.  Nagel's process was to keep reducing his images down to their most basic geometric elements - to see just how much you can get across with as little elements as possible, much as we see here.   But where Nagel's subjects have the definite whiff of the necrophile to them, Jaramillo injects more life - accentuating vibrancy and spontaneity rather than diminishing it.

That said, there's two works at the gallery that come from a very different, darker, place to the rest; These two, both entitled Maquina de la vida, are from 1973.  They're drawings of prostitutes, rendered in harsh monochrome - the only colours used serve to accentuate the sickly fleshiness of their bodies and their lurid makeup.  These demonstrate Jaramillo's progression as an artist from (in her words) "contempt for academia", "decay" and a passion for the "grotesque" into the optimism we see in her more recent work.  I like these older pieces, though they tickle a very different part of my sensibilities than the rest.  

Whereas the Ellas series grant divinity, the 1973 works drain it away - anchoring the prostitutes in an organic, corporeal mire.  There's a dead-eyed, zombie-like quality to the women, the artist making visible the scars of sacrificing humanity so they can make it through just one more client.  There's an aggressiveness to these two that's absent from the contemporary work; a forthright boldness borne of a desire to "address the fundamental problems underlying our society".

Perhaps the joyousness of the modern works contrasted with the despair of what came before indicates mission accomplished for the artist?  Perhaps it's that she's now happy, free and successful and wants to communicate this happiness to us.  Perhaps it's just her working from the truism that you catch more flies with honey.  Whatever the reason, the progression from darkness to light is fascinating to ponder.  So while the UV beams down upon us, try and get yourself to Chelsea and bask in this sensuous, radiant and optimistic exhibition.

Ellas by Maripaz Jaramillo is at Sandra Higginas Fine Art, Gallery Petit, Chelsea until 20th June 2014

'Chinese Puzzle' (Casse-tête chinois) (2014) directed by Cédric Klapisch

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

 Capturing human interaction on film isn't as easy as it sounds.  Too often screenwriters and directors retreat into cliched dialogue and stock characters to the point where the people running around on screen feel as artificial as any rampaging CG monster.  But Chinese Puzzle serves up a blizzard of tightly observed interactions, shifting relationships and moments of honest emotion that all ring true. This is a great piece of cinema, one that really understands the complexities - the soaring joys and the crushing miseries - of modern love.


Chinese Puzzle is on general release from June 13th

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

 Can you feel nostalgic for an myth? Jean-Pierre Jeunet seems to think so.  The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is an amusement park ride through a dreamland Americana – a fantasy of gleaming silver trucks speeding down desert roads, friendly bums dispensing advice from railroad cars and steaming hotdogs so utterly delicious you’d risk it all for just one bite.

T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a boy genius living on an idyllic Montana ranch on with his entomologist, beetle obsessed mother (Helena Bonham-Carter), cowboy throwback dad (Callum Keith Rennie) and Miss America hopeful older sister (Niamh Wilson).  T.S. is a young Einstein, able to turn his hand to any branch of science, from cartography, to geology, to acoustics instinctively.  Encouraged by a lecture he crept into he’s inspired to invent a perpetual motion machine. This wins him the Baird prize in science, which will be presented at the Smithsonian in a couple of days. Running away from home he engages in a wistfully bold cross-country journey to collect his prize, hitch-hiking, riding the rails to Washington – and learning about America on the way.

Jeunet’s idealised America is viewed from an outsider’s perspective; a collage of old movies, imported TV shows and advertising imagery that coagulates into a hyper-real, super-saturated USA+.  Everything is filtered through a European, continental prism, less a recreation of some lost Golden Age and more a dramatisation of the American subconscious. 

The film abounds with visuals, objects and ideas depicted so lovingly they take on a totemic significance.  For example, a juggernaut speeding down a desert highway is rendered in almost psychedelically colourful detail, a creature of glistening chrome, bristling with lights and colour.  A hotdog stand becomes a pool of light within the darkness, staffed by a friendly maternal lady – the hotdog itself the platonic ideal of what a hotdog should be.

There’s a dark side to all this though.  Most obvious are some rather pointed observations on masculinity all wrapped up in gun control.  The dangers of gun culture come briefly under the microscope in the guise of what it means to be an American man.  Similarly, media culture is lightly satirised – the film presenting various shallow modes of love springing from fame which compare unfavourably against familial love.

All this takes place in a highly artificial hyper-reality.  3D is largely an anti-piracy measure more than an aesthetic choice in modern cinema, desultory, effort-free post conversions that add nothing the norm in multiplexes.  Not so in T.S. Spivet: it’s a crucial component of the film.  There’s the odd showboating ‘jab things at the screen’ effect, but most of the time 3D is used for floating split screens into other worlds, or CG trips through the imagination of the characters.  In pure technical terms it’s a joy to watch, and at minimum it’s refreshing to see a director treating 3D as a medium rather than as an effect.

Sadly, being technically excellent is probably the best thing about the film.  This isn’t a film with any stinker performances, massive directorial missteps or scripting woes – it’s all largely competent professional stuff with the occasional glimmer of excellence.  The real problem lies in Jeunet’s sympathies and their political implications.

Hankering for some long-lost Disneyland past where children had rosy cheeks, the sunsets were always beautiful and everything was picturesque, sedate and white (there are no non-white cast members) is conservatism (and when it comes to T.S. Spivet’s Americana fetish, a particularly Republican conservatism).  Also of note is the complete lack of any non-white characters in the movie.  Similarly, the narrative of a young boy genius striking out on his own against public schools and publically owned scientific institutes has more than a whiff of Rand to it.  

This rather unpleasant strand reaches its zenith when the film tackles gun control.    By this point a child has died from being allowed to play, unsupervised, with a small calibre rifle.  It’s a moment where you expect the film to finally take a stand on an issue, showing us some of the unpleasant consequences of wallowing in frontier masculinity.  Instead the film essentially says “who are we to say what is right or wrong?” A lily-livered conclusion to say the least.  The final nail in the coffin is when the remaining few problems in the film are solved by a gruff cowboy punching a helpless man repeatedly in the face.

The irony of a Frenchman making a film that deifies American mythology to this extent is not lost on me.  This is precisely the kind of film that those who’d bark “cheese eating surrender monkeys” or coin the phrase “freedom fries” will absolutely adore.  It’s this kind of America that’s probably wistfully dreamt about by slumbering Fox News viewers, aching for a lost cowboy utopia that never really existed in the first place.

Perhaps this isn’t what Jeunet set out to accomplish, but accomplish it he has.  It’s a shame the film is so ideologically rotten because there are moments of genuine beauty nestled within it – even if it is a somewhat chintzy beauty.  If you do see it, it’s worth checking out in a cinema if only to enjoy the 3D aspects, but on the whole I’d stay away unless you have an unusually passionate aesthetic interest in American nostalgia.


The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is out June 13th

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