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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Tea and Crumpet Filmcast Episode I

Thursday, July 31, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

My latest appearance on the Screen Robot Tea and Crumpets Filmcast (please know that I actively fought against this name).  We're now on We Got This Covered - so have extended our audience to a whole other continent!  

Containing reviews of Earth to Echo, Joe, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Purge: Anarchy and much much more.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014) directed by James Gunn

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

In James Gunn's excellent Guardians of the Galaxy the human race gets to be the coolest kid in the playground.  Set in a universe populated by the moronic, the pompous and the self important (all with surreal haircuts) we come out looking like intergalactic Fonzies. Even better, is that our most effective weapons aren't guns and bombs, they're Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and David motherfucking Bowie.  

This is an old school space opera that's much more a 21st century evolution of Flash Gordon than any po-faced hard science fictioning, the kind of setting where a few blobs of latex and a bit of facepaint on an extra and they're a whole new species.  This blob of weirdness set within the same filmic universe as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but this is a clean slate in every sense of the word.  Gone is the desaturated dullness of The Winter Soldier and the atrocious flattened cinematography of The Avengers.  In its place is a riot of colour and imagination, shot with an eye for the epic and a desire to embrace comicbook ridiculousness.

That Marvel are willing to release a tentpole summer blockbuster starring a talking raccoon, a tree man that only says three words and an obscure-to-everyone-but-ultra-geeks supporting cast of comic book space dudes says an awful lot about their current level of confidence. I consider myself relatively up on comics - I know my Stilt Man from my Hypno-Hustler - but even I drew a blank on what the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy's deal was.

Drink in that lovely colour.  Mmmm.
The centre of the story is Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt).  Abducted by aliens as a young child he's grown up to become space Indiana Jones. His life consists to be zooming around the universe in a cool spaceship, stealing alien archaeological relics and living the Kirkian dream of banging multicoloured spacebabes.  After tracking down one particularly important item he becomes involved in an intergalactic war, one side wreathed in darkness and flying around in a sinister ship that looks like a floating Castle Dracula and the other a miniskirted, greenery covered utopia run by a magnificently coiffed Glenn Close (you decide who the baddies are).

Space MacGuffin in tow, Quill is suddenly the focus of a lot of attention.  Courtsey of some impressively organic screenwriting he's soon the leader of a fractious group of losers bound together by either psychoses or greed.  They are; green skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), gun-wielding smartass raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the childlike tree man Groot (Vin Diesel) and hulking moron Drax (Dave Bautista).  

They've got to band together to keep the space whatsit from falling into the hands of the evil Kree Empire led by the sinister Ronan, his cybernetic half-sister Nebula and their muscle Korath who all serve the Darkseid ripoff Thanos who wants nothing more than to master the Infinity Gems and blah blah blah.... you know what? None of that rubbish matters in the slightest.  

Here's 'yer baddie.  He's a bit pantomime.
Refreshingly the entire intergalactic conflict takes a backseat to well constructed set pieces, cracklingly good dialogue and excellent music.  This whole science fiction universe is one ginormous straight man to our everyman hero as he bounces from one ridiculous situation to another with only his sense of comic timing saving him from disaster.  By the end you've realised the less seriously Quill treats the plot the more success he has.  

Highlights are passing off the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose as one of Earth's epic tales, an inpromptu dance-off in the face of certain death, a perfectly timed jizz-joke, Drax's inability to comprehend metaphor, a Simpsonsesque foreground vs background gag involving Groot and the confident, logical assertion that no person can truly be "a 100% dick".  Gunn essentially treats the Marvel space comics like his personal playground, fitting in more idiosyncrasies and bizarre elements than anyone could ever have expected Marvel would allow.

Underscoring all that is a firm vision of epic adventure.  Cinematographer Ben Davis frames his glittering space vistas with a care and attention to detail that'd make Jack Kirby blush. Everything is vibrant and alive, frames are packed with miniature details that bring the world to life and crucial imagery is composed with an artist's eye for drawing the eye through a frame.  Great blooms of colour fill the screen during the action sequences, purples, red and yellow flames blossoming around the characters to stunning effect.  For the first time in a Marvel film even the 3D is worthwhile, the fruit of Gunn taking an active interest in the post-conversion process.

^ this is good shit ^
On top of all that is the genius idea to soundtrack the film with hits from the 70s.  The conceit is that when Quill was abducted in 1988 one of his few possessions was a cassette Walkman loaded with a mix of his mother's favourite tunes.  The music makes the film accessible, the familiarity of the songs giving audiences a foothold in an this alien universe. Not to mention that the careful chosen songs all kick ass - as characters plan out their next move to the snarling howls of Joan Jett it's difficult not to get keyed up.

Guardians of the Galaxy ends up feeling like a sharply delivered riposte to critics (and I include myself in this) who've written off Marvel Studios movies as unimaginatively formulaic and stylistically bland. This is light years beyond garbage like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers; if Marvel really are trying to figure out a formula to stick to they could do a hell of a lot worse than making their subsequent films more like this.  This is brimming over with things I enjoy - imagination, good nature and the most ridiculous hairdos this side of The Fifth Element.


Guardians of the Galaxy is released on the 31st of July.

'Drag King Richard III' at Riverside Studios, 29th July 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

It's with a sneaking sense of shame that I confess I'd assumed this was going to be an adaptation of Richard III by men in drag. The clue as to what it is actually about is in the title 'Drag King' Richard III. This is a less-told story, the marginalised even within the marginalised: female to male transition.  

The play, written by Dr Terri Power, is an examination of the transition of her friend Laurie/Laurence (Anne Zander) in the late 80s and early 90s.  Told from the lesbian perspective 'La Femme' (Bonnie Adair), we see two characters explore gender roles; one with blush, lipstick and dresses, the other with hormones, scalpels and surgery.  Framing all this is Shakespeare's paragon of self-loathing, Richard III.  Power treats Richard's twisted, deformed husk of a body as a literary reflection of the 'wrongness' that compels transgender people towards transitioning.

With just two actors and a sparse set, the play has a tinge of the experimental. Though  the underlying narrative of Laurence's thrums away in the background, we frequently digress into fragments of performance art, which slides back into a slice of Shakespeare for a couple of minutes before returning to a two personal confessional.  The upshot is that you're never sure of your footing, the constant cycling through different modes, moods and intensities keeping us engaged.  Consequentially, the shifting, occasionally fractured, dramatic structure reflects the themes of transition and metamorphosis inherent to the subject matter.

La Femme - Bonnie Adair
At the heart of Drag King Richard III is the concept of gender as a social construct rather than innate biology.  The idea of an intrinsic masculinity or femininity is an illusion; roles prescribed by societal conditioning as opposed to preordained by 'nature'.  Power initially plays this in a minor key by showing her stage surrogate, usually dressed down in ripped jeans and a loose-fitting vest top, going 'femme' for a night out.  

A woman putting on a dress, tights and a bit of make-up isn't exactly rocking the boat, yet even this subtle transformation gains power from the context.  In pretty plain terms, we're shown how even adopting conventional gender norms sends out a complex tangle of social signals: she's up for it, she wants attention, she's looking for fun etc.  If doing something as simple as this causes ripples, how does changing ones gender completely?

Given the depiction of Laurence it's like tossing hand grenades at your friends and family. The late 80s setting means that none of the characters have any idea how to approach the idea of a woman transitioning to a man, no support groups, existing advice to follow and no internet to consult.  Further wrinkling things are that this is all taking place in Georgia - a state not exactly renowned for it's progressive stances.

Laurie/Laurence - Anne Zander
So Laurence's parents, having just about managed to tolerate her coming out as gay, disown her altogether.  Even her gay friends find the notion disconcerting - with  the straightforward and fascinating observation that if they love a woman that becomes a man, does that make them heterosexual?  It feels like everything is spinning outwards into recriminations and mutual suspicions, Laurence erecting barriers between himself, his friends, family and society in general, cauterising the amputated stump of her old gender by signing up to the US Military to take out his frustrations on the Middle East.

Kicking back against society's expectations of her as a woman, Laurence adopts hypermasculinity. He's angry, aggressively sexual and domineering - rasping through gritted teeth how he wants to "break" women.  This is the weaponisation of gender, fashioning every expectation of of manhood into a club to beat us with.  Zander is excellent casting for this role - her features are like a rack of razor blades, her blue eyes wide and confrontational, her body like a high tension cable.  As she stalks the stage she makes eye contact with the audience - when she's locked on to you, you become a deer on a road at night transfixed by the car bearing down upon it.

Her command of Shakespeare is also deeply impressive, imbuing dialogue like "cheated of feature by dissembling nature / deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time / into this breathing world, scarce half made up" with spiky fervour, leaving us no doubts as to its relevance to the transgender experience. There's a clarity of vision to this performance, powerful confidence faintly leavened with a humanising tinge of self-doubt.

The a post-show discussion afterwards proved to be as fascinating as the play itself. Chaired by Del LaGrace Volcano, and featuring director Roz Hopkinson, the cast and Dr Powers they pick through what the meanings of contemporary gender.  Volcano's mere presence is a perfect rebuttal to those with a deathgrip on the idea of gender as a strict binary, effortlessly straddling masculine and feminine. 

The most illuminating part of the discussion was an explanation of why female-to-male transgendered people are marginalised compared to male-to-female.  Volcano laid out that men like Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry are considered 'brave' when they don feminine signifiers.  The compelling argument was made that this bravery arises from the idea of consciously rejecting masculine privilege in favour of the 'lesser' femininity.  Conversely, women seizing masculine privilege are seen as interlopers, unfairly occupying the positions of power. Zander explained that she saw this as a straightforward symptom of patriarchy - an analysis it's difficult to argue with.

As I left I had a mouthful of intellectual gristle to munch on. It's easy to march through life accepting that society is the way it is because it's the way it is.  This is the unexamined life and it's boring as hell.  Frolicking in fuzzy gender boundaries is a fantastic way to reveal your own ingrained prejudices, even if it is just donning a suit or a dress and heading out into the night. Drag King Richard III manages to do a hell of lot with very little time, telling a deeply felt personal story while getting into the nitty-gritty of wider gender issues. If you have an interest in trans rights, sociology or gender politics you should absolutely check it out.

Drag King Richard III is at Riverside Studios until 3rd August 2014.  Tickets here.

All photography by Jamie Scott-Smith.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014) directed by Matt Reeves

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

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is indisputably the smartest film in cinema history that features a chimpanzee wielding two assault rifles (while jumping a horse over a burning car in slow motion).  There's something quietly bonkers about a series of films that sincerely explores the idea of humanity being conquered by a race of super-intelligent apes - let alone one where the narrative focus is on the apes.  

Nobody (least of all me) expected 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to be any good.  As it rolled down the blockbuster production line everyone assumed that it was just another tired old Hollywood reboot, not to mention that it was directed by someone whose prior experience was on Hollyoaks.  Yet, on release you could practically hear gasps emanating from cinemas up and down the land as critics and audiences realised: "whoa, this is great!".  From the stunning ape CG (earning a commendation from PETA for never using real animals), to the touching performance of John Lithgow to the jaw-droppingly effective scene where an ape first speaks it came together beautifully.

That film ended with a group of smart apes led by genius ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) vanishing into a California redwood forest. Meanwhile a deadly flu has been inadvertently released, which spreads worldwide over the credits.  Dawn picks up ten years later.  The virus has wiped out 99.8% of the human race, leaving a desperate band of human survivors eking out a life in urban ruins.  Meanwhile, free from humans bothering them, Caesar's apes are prospering in a commune atop a former hydroelectric dam.

Koba is an ape of action.
Ape life seems happy enough under Caesar's reign, where the only commandment "ape shall never kill ape" holds a mutually supportive society together.  Wielding spears they hop from tree to tree, hunting deer, while teacher apes instruct the young in language and thinking.  It's an idyllic life - but one soon to be disrupted.  The humans, under the command of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) need power, the only remaining source being the dam on which the apes live.  

And so the stage is set for war.  Despite the best efforts of Caesar and ape-sympathetic human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), both species become slowly more antagonistic until everything erupts in a full on ape vs human maelstrom.  Much of this is due to the machinations of Koba, an ape with a big chip on his hairy shoulder.  He bears the scars of animal testing and, with a grudge against all humans, kicks off a coup, seizing control of the ape army and leading the apes to war.

This is all utterly ridiculous, yet the immaculate CGI work of the apes means it's next to impossible not to take this seriously.  Andy Serkis and the crack team of animators at WETA Digital are at the bleeding edge of digital performances, making Caesar both effortlessly realistic and smothered in big heaving dollops of empathy.  The film opens and closes with a tight close-up of Caesar's eyes, burning with intelligence and understanding. From minute one we're on side and the film doesn't disappoint.

It is hard to not want to see a movie with a shotgun wielding superintelligent ape in it.
Every moment we spend with the apes is well spent.  Aside from being a technical marvel, they behave precisely like you'd imagine very intelligent animals to - not quite human, but not quite animal either.  The film is refreshingly happy to stick to subtitled sign language, meaning the first 15 minutes or so is a brilliantly scored, dialogue free sequence where we watch the apes hunt.  In a clever touch, Michael Giacchino's score (which has excellently pun-tastic song titles) quotes György Ligeti's Requiem, famously used in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - another film about evolved apes learning to use tools.

Frankly I would have been happy watching the apes potter about for an hour or two, but the humans have to stick their big ugly noses into proceedings.  It's here that the quality takes a bit of a dip.  Quite simply, compared to the apes the humans are dull, underwritten and not particularly well acted.  There's a TV movieish quality to their scenes that even Gary Oldman can't quite save.  Adding to this is a troubling disregard for every woman in the film - the hero's wife is supposedly a doctor, though she gets a derisory amount of things to do and remains a cipher through much of the movie (though, to be fair the lady apes get the same treatment).

We're drumming our fingers in annoyance during these human bits, desperate to get back to the far more interesting inter-ape conflict.  It's worth it, Koba and Caesar's battle to lead the nascent ape rulers proves once and for all that if you let an infinite number of monkeys try long enough they actually do produce something vaguely Shakespearian.

This is a story of revolution, and in an Animal Farmish twist the two competing apes have clear parallels in Soviet history.  Koba,named for one of the aliases of Joseph Stalin, is consumed by the desire to purge the earth of both the humans, who he sees as ideologically incompatible with apekind and dissenters within his own ranks. 

Caesar appears to be more of a representative of Vladimir Lenin, the brains behind the original push change.  Caesar is a bourgeois chimpanzee, growing up in cosy middle-class security with a James Franco that loves him dearly, an upbringing that mirrors the wealthy upbringing of Lenin.  This leads to suspicion from within the ape ranks that perhaps Caesar is too sympathetic to humans - leading to the ape power struggle.  Confusingly there's also a bit of Jesus Christ in Caesar, the ape framed with religious reverence and 'resurrecting' after three days and also, obviously, Julius Caesar.

Gaze into the eyes of the new gods.
This knot of symbols and references is, to be charitable, a little confusing to unpick.  Dawn is clearly pregnant with meaning, but this initial promise eventually dissolves away in a blur of somewhat silly (but well shot) action sequences featuring apes with machine guns, apes in tanks and ape prison camps.  

Dawn never dips below eminently watchable, the ape-only sequences are fantastic cinema and Serkis gives a masterclass in digital performance.  But it never comes together as well as Rise, a far more streamlined and consistent piece of cinema.  For all the bombastic drama of Dawn, by the final sequences the apes are in much the same place as they were at the end of the last film, poised to take over the world while humanity sticks around like a bad fart, the apes patiently waiting for it to waft away into the breeze.  

This stalling for time makes the film narratively inconsequential.  What is the worth of a film about revolution that ends in the same place it starts?  Koba was right. The humans had their chance and screwed up everything.  Compromise is pointless, it's in humanity's nature to torture, exploit and lie.  They deserve to be mercilessly wiped out and an ape utopia blossom from the ashes.  

What we actually get is less a Planet of the Apes and more a San Francisco Bay Area of the Apes, and that's just not good enough.

Down with the bourgeois, liberal Caesar! Viva Koba! 


Sunday, July 27, 2014

'Boyhood' (2014) directed by Richard Linklater

Sunday, July 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Summarising Boyhood is a fool's errand.  How can you fit a film like this into a couple of paragraphs? Individual superlatives spring to mind; wonderful, touching, amazing, beautiful and so on, but even they fail to quite convey the gobsmacking majesty of the movie.  No film quite like Boyhood has ever come to cinemas before.  No film quite like Boyhood will again.  

Boiled down, Boyhood is a gimmick movie, but goddamn what a gimmick.  In 2002 Linklater began shooting a film starring six-year old Ellar Coltrane.  Twelve years later he wrapped.  The innocent six-year old has been replaced by an independent 18 year old man. This film is about what happens along the way to this journey.  Perplexingly, there's not even much of a narrative; the film functioning as a window into a normal life free from dramatic pretense and 'big problems', confident that merely exploring geological shifts in relationships will keep us engaged.

Coltrane plays Mason Jr, living a humdrum life in suburban Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).  His often-absent father (Ethan Hawke) rolls up in a cool-as-hell muscle car every couple of weekends on visitation rights.  As the years swim by we're introduced to a cavalcade of friends, family, houses and haircuts, and just as we get used to them it's all change - onto the next phase.  

Linklater's directorial ability to make the mundane so gripping is straight-up superhuman. He's working some crazy alchemy here; no flashy camera work, no supercool dialogue and no show-offy grandstanding performances.  So what exactly keeps us interested?  Linklater has excavated an aspect of humanity in cinema that we rarely to get to experience; kindling real love in us as we watch Mason grow.

As Linklater cuts between the years we feel mild disorientation; just as we've become accustomed to Mason at one age we have to deal with his changes.  It's with surprise that we realise his voice has broken between scenes, he's experienced a sudden growth spurt, developed an interest in girls or grown a cool new haircut.  This progression puts us in the same shoes as Mason's father, stopping off every so often and having to deal with what's taken place in our absence.

Very quickly we get attached to Mason.  He's a likeable enough boy at every stage of his development whether he's disappointed to realise that there's no such things as elves in the world, going on a classically Linklaterian ramble about conspiracies or ingesting psychedelics with friends.  I began to feel like a ghost or guardian angel, a disembodied presence in his life silently observing and wishing the best for him - I've rarely felt so protective towards a character in a movie before.  This sensation is so strong because deep down in our bones we know that we're really watching this person grow up. 

Importantly, we're not just watching Mason grow up, we're not just watching his family wrinkle up - we're silently watching ourselves grow up too.  Boyhood is a record of what the early years of the 21st century;  characters smoking indoors, fiddling around with iMacs and playing splitscreen Halo 2.  Linklater has an uncanny knack for capturing precise elements of particular moments in time; the fact that the scenes are filmed in those years means, by definition, they're entirely free of anachronisms.

There's a marvellous scene where a young, excited Mason attends a midnight book shop opening for the release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  Your first instinct is to marvel at how beautifully Linklater has recreated it - then you realise that he probably filmed it at a real midnight Harry Potter opening.  You get similar feelings watching technology gradually developing around our character; the progression from dumbphones to the ubiquity of iPhones; the rise of social networking and pop progressing from the Britney to the Gaga era.

This steady march through time underlines how quickly the world changes and how invisible these changes seem while you're living them.  Most of all it makes you feel old; a miasma of melancholy enveloping you as watch a 6 year Mason playing a GameBoy Advance SP and realising - holy shit - I was just starting university when that came out! Realisations like this reveal that it's time itself that's the real villain of Boyhood, a cruel master whipping us onwards - never allowing us to stand still, even for a moment.

Time chisels away at our characters like waves beating against a cliff.  We watch Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette softly slide into middle-age; their features softening as they wrinkle and grey.  We see people degenerate into alcoholism and bitterness.  Divisions growing between couples like weeds through paving stones.  Towards the end of the film there's a quiet, touching moment where its bemoaned that time passes too fast: the clichéd parental moan "they grow up so fast". By this point Linklater has more than earned a dab of cliché, and it's deeply, sincerely felt by both characters and audience.

This is an incredibly important, enormously ambitious film and it is obviously - obviously - going to go down in cinematic history as a stone cold classic.  There's a thousand beautiful observations within it; ranging from that we use gifts to mould people into what we want them to be, to appreciating the love in your life while you have it and so on - a fractal, infinite glimpse into humanity: life itself, captured on film.

Boyhood has got to be Linklater's magnum opus and with it he's undeniably entered the highest panethon of directors. If you have the slightest interest in cinema as a medium you need to see it.  If you have the slightest interest in people you need to see it.


Friday, July 25, 2014

'Hercules' (2014) directed by Brett Ratner

Friday, July 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"There aren’t many things less likely to inspire passion than the words “directed by Brett Ratner.” Say what you want about crowd pleasing blockbuster factories like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder or Justin Lin, but at least their work has a clearly defined style and inspires debate. Not Brett Ratner. Renowned as a workmanlike director, his main claim to fame is his ability to bring a project in on time and under budget. So the prospect of a new addition to the Ratner filmography wasn’t exactly setting my world on fire. Adding an additional note of sourness to proceedings is the widely publicized artist-led boycott of the film on the basis that the studio has bilked the late Steve Moore, (author of the comic books that this version of Hercules is based on), out of every penny he was due through sneaky contractual finagling."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

'Lilting' (2014) directed by Hong Khaou

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

Set in a perpetually overcast Hackney, Lilting is a delicately painted argument that the most fundamental human emotions exist somewhere beyond language.  In this case it's grief, loss and depression that provides the fuel for an unlikely, fractious friendship between two people; Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Junn (Pei-pei Cheng).  Richard is a.... 

...hang on a minute....

Pei-pei Cheng?  THE Pei-pei Cheng?  The Lady of Steel?  The Iron Princess? THE QUEEN OF SWORDS?!  This Pei-pei Cheng?

Wow! Alright where was I?

Oh yeah.  So Richard is the epitome of metropolitan life; he's trendy, fashionable, hangs out in all the right coffee shops and has a beautifully tasteful run-down house in what looks like Cambridge Heath.  Junn is an elderly Cambodian immigrant living a depressed life in an old people's home.  She speaks very little English, looks isolated and apparently spends her days counting down the hours until the Grim Reaper comes a-knockin'.

Bringing them together is the character of Kai.  He's Junn's beloved son, responsible for her being in the UK and obsessed with making sure she's provided for.  As the film opens we see them happily making small-talk about the minutia of their lives.  Their mutual love is palpable, though there's an undercurrent of unhappiness from the mother at being 'abandoned' in a nursing home.  As conversation rambles on a nurse suddenly enters the room and, in a perfectly executed panning shot, we realise that Junn has been talking to herself.

Kai is dead.  Hit by a car.  Now, left alone, her only regular visitor is Richard, Kai's best friend.  But of course he's not his best friend, he's Kai's bereaved partner.  Unable to out Kai to his mother even in death, he feels responsible towards her - though she's confused as to why Richard cares so much.  Eventually he hires an interpreter that allows them to converse, and the two very gradually form an uneasy bond.

Kai and Richard
Lilting is a purposefully slow, desaturated and flatly shot piece of cinema.  Khaou clearly understands the psychic numbness that comes with loss, endeavouring to make his cinematic world as muted as possible.  Everything from the hideous 1960s wallpaper in the nursing home to the alabaster white skin of Richard and Kai as they lie in bed together combines to create a rather depressing vision of a world where all hope is lost.

The few bright spots in the story come from Alan (Peter Bowles) and Vann (Naomi Christie).  Alan and Junn are a rather cute couple in the nursing home, getting on well even though they can't communicate directly with each other.  Richard decides the best way to cheer up Junn is to hire an interpretor, Vann, to translate.  Bowles gives the role a great deal curmudgeonly charm, making this geriatric romance rather sweet and uplifting in the middle of all this gloom.

As Vann becomes increasingly involved in the drama between Richard and Junn, she translates more and more.  The cinematic result of that is quite interesting, breaking up the rhythm of a normal movie conversation.  It's a way of clearly delineating reaction from response, the gap necessitated by translation allowing us to focus on the actor's physical and not what they're saying.  Both Whishaw and Cheng exploit this dynamic beautifully, the method adding a ton of tension to the fraught final scenes. 

That wallpaper is just awful.
Lilting is very much an actor's movie - one of ponderous conversations, revelations and gradual character development.  Whishaw in particular embodies that stage in a man's life where he realises, once and for all, that he is no longer officially young.  In his grief he's shouldered some very mature burdens; and with the death of his partner he has nowhere to direct his newfound desire for responsibility - Junn being the most obvious and worthwhile outlet.

Meanwhile Cheng's Junn bears the burden of constantly lying to herself.  You're never quite sure whether she secretly knows her dead son is gay or if she really is naive to the whole deal.  I'd like to give the character the benefit of the doubt - her performance is infused with a weird, naked truth that indicates she'd hate to lie to herself.  My favourite moments in the film are all her - when she nods in approval as she notices Richard frying bacon with chopsticks, or her sharply felt shock and anger at being denied her son's ashes. 
I had no idea Cheng has transitioned so smoothly into straight dramatic roles and though a small part of me was hoping for her to break into an orgy of bloody swordfighting, she fills the screen with the same ironclad inner strength that made her so compelling as a basher of heads and slicer-offer of limbs.

Hong Khaou's style is the cinematic equivalent of a rainy, hungover Sunday afternoon. Lilting is often a bit of a downer, but it's a sensitive movie that has the confidence to proceed at its own pace.  I suspect that for some audiences the stately, melancholy drama will translate into straight-up boredom, but I was enthralled from start to finish.  It's an unassuming little movie, yet what Khaou has to say about the universal nature of grieving, and how bonds form regardless of cultural or language barriers rings true. 


Lilting is released August 8th

Monday, July 21, 2014

Whitecross Street Party 2014

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

There are few finer feelings than skipping out of your front door right into a street party. Now in its fifth year, the Whitecross Street Party is one of the highlights of my calendar and cements why this is my favourite street in London. Admittedly, living here is pretty ace the other 363 days of the year, but for this weekend the neighbourhood pops on its glad rags and shows off, strutting about with a spring in its step.  

But first the weather. After a week long heatwave papers were warning of "the storm to end all storms". I awoke early Saturday morning to a grim scene; lightning was tickling the City skyscrapers and thunder was wobbling my windowpanes.  Ah shit, this doesn't look particularly great.  Someone must have made a sacrifice to the God of Weather though, because as people turned up the weather kept getting more and more lovely, and largely stayed that way for the entire weekend.

As far as I'm concerned it just isn't right to have a party like this without a spot of sun. Bright pools of primary colours dot the drab Victorian brickwork up and down the street, glowing in the noon haze. This is the yearly exhibition entitled The Rise of the Non-Conformists.  Strapped up to the walls is a motley collection of pop-inflected street art, most of it playfully political.  They remain for the rest of the summer, continuing to improve everyone's lives even after the rest of the Party has long since disappeared into hungover memory.  

My favourites this year were Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy's striking portrait of a woman with a couple of wrenches jammed through her cheeks.  Rendered in clean-lined comic book style there's something wickedly funny about the deadpan expression on her face that seems to read: "Oh great, not this shit again."  Similarly neat is the black and white sign reading "Your mind is crazy and tells you lies.".  It reminds me of the Rowdy Roddy Piper/John Carpenter classic They Live, where the truth behind advertising is revealed by wearing special sunglasses.

Also brill are the this-weekend-only sculptures situated up and the street.  Funniest was a remote-controlled wheelie bin courtesy of the Bureau of Silly Ideas.  With the pilot casually observing from a safe distance, the bin appears to be possessed by a malicious artificial intelligence, whirring across the road to block pedestrians, honking at them and even, my favourite, spraying them with a blast of water.  Most people take it with good spirit (every child loves it) but there's a sadistic side of me that most enjoys it when adults get genuinely annoyed - it's impossible to keep your dignity when you're scowling at an apparently sentient bin.

Similarly neat is the striking visual of an apparently dead body lying inside a giant birdcage.  On close inspection it's a mannequin, but at a glance it looks disconcertingly lifelike.  This helpless, somehow injured body, surrounded by people looking in other directions made me think of the 'Bystander Effect'; namely the larger the crowd, the greater the diffusion of responsibility.  So if we see someone laying in the street and we're the only person about we might stop and check whether they're alright.  If there's a hundred of us, we'll figure "eh, someone else will sort them out". 

Next to that is the segmented graffiti wall.  The air is thick with the acrid yet comforting smell of spray paint, discarded stencils lie on the ground and all about the artists scurry around making their mark.  I particularly like Leeks' giant Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan.  Jerusalem is a futuristic Hunter S Thompson, and here we see him booting down the door of a corrupt politician. "I don't have to put up with this shabby crap!" he yells, and below someone has written "So I'm going to Whitecross St!" - a surefire way of appealing to my sense of community pride.

For all the art on display, it's the performers that inject the street with that distinctive carnival atmosphere.  Special mention has to go to this child I happened to catch playing a piano in the middle of the street.  An enraptured, hushed crowd listened as he picked his way through some standards, making me feel like a talentless sausage-fingered bum.

Also fun to watch was regular Whitecross Street Party attendees, Bramble FM.  Parents watched in quiet confusion as, to Motörhead's Ace of Spades, a dinosaur women and a mostly naked man clutching a bone wrestled with each other amongst the crowd, before splatting down into a tub of bubbly water.  

All that said, the best performer I saw all weekend was also the last.  Babsical Babs and Punkture Sluts were absolutely tearing it up on Garrett Street.  With woozy bass beats filling the road she stomped up and down like she owned the place.  She blazes with charisma, winning the audience over pretty much from the word go.  Her outfit makes her look like a punk rock commander and her reflexive thrusts and wiggles injecting a bit of sexy/ramshackle anarchy into her set.  The crowd really gets into it; one particularly statuesque woman conducting a singlehanded stage invasion - bossing a bemused Babs about and at one point demanding the microphone for an impromptu verse.  "I've gotten to the point in my career where I need security" Babs quips. Even a percussion band parading up and down the street doesn't throw her off - this woman is way past cool (and I've made a note to track down her next gig).

It was, as always, a lovely weekend and I'm hugely grateful to the organisers for putting together the event.  I don't think it was the best this party has ever been - there was no monumentally amazing sculpture like the inflatable tentacles, last year's giant black skull, or Wreckage International's Triceratops from a couple of years ago but hey, I'm not going to pick holes.  Already looking forward to the next one.  

Onwards and upwards Whitecross Street!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

'Darren Storer Reading' at Русский мир, 18th July 2014

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

"This is David.  He's a journalist.  He's going to write about us".  A roomful of eyes turned to me as I sheepishly waved hello.  The speaker was David William Parry, Heathen Priest of the Goddess Nerthus, poet, critic, dramaturge, academic - kind of a big cheese in the Pagan community.  Ruddy-faced and tweed-clad he fixed me with an authoritative stare that unmistakably read "don't write anything nasty, or else".

I began to wonder just what the hell I'd signed up for.  Underneath a sex shop on Goodge Street lies Русский мир, a book shop, restaurant and repository for all things Russian. Inside are a motley gathering of Britain's heathens, heretics and pagans; collectively gathered under the umbrella of 'Theo-Humanist Arts'.  They describe themselves as "promoting the cause of radical religious Arts across the globe.  We celebrate our shared humanity, while aiming to grasp spiritual truth".

Sounds reasonable enough.  The centre of the night was poet Darren Storer, reading from his new book The Recusant Who Never Recanted, an epic collection of poetry that probes the author's beliefs and the hypocritical society that surrounds him.  Storer is an incredibly interesting man; a self described powerful psychic prone to dramatic visions and who frequently lapses into trance states while writing, emerging to find pages of text he has no memory of writing.  In appropriately reverent tones he explains that he could be channelling Edgar Allen Poe, or even The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.

Storer's poetry seeks to make followers of those that experience it, joining him in an epic voyage through a world populated by those antagonistic to him, whose reactions range from incomprehension to aggression.  He bats questions away from Christians who interrogate him as to whether he's a Satanist, "I have older friends" he archly replies.  As he recites he leans on a cane, grimacing every few lines as he worked his way through a fat bushel of papers.  

Darren Storer
At about 40 minutes long this is a one hell of a reading, often feeling as if he's guiding us down the rabbit hole.  There's the odd overly forced rhyme and a blizzard of purple prose, but it all hangs together.  As Storer spins out his poem it occurs to me that the very act of reading it might be some form of magickal incantation in and of itself. I glance over his wife's Sarah Tiger's paintings hung on the wall next to me - clawed hands reaching through sigils and spiralling pentagrams.  

My life keeps intersecting with the occult in all sorts of weird ways.  Last year, just after having been invited by the Warberg Institute to examine his personal papers I literally stumbled across the Crowleyian history book Sword of Wisdom by Ithell Colquhoun, which someone had, for some reason, left lying on a Notting Hill pavement.  Just a couple of days ago I was enjoyably picking my way through the Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition in the British Library. I turn a corner and find the staring eyes and hairless pate of Crowley bearing down on me, hearing an audio recording of the man himself tinnily chanting down through the years.

Sarah Tiger and one of her paintings.
I don't buy into the mysterious forces that Crowley claimed to have grasped, but I do respect the man for leading one of the most interesting lives I've ever read about.  I'm also fascinated with the history of Occult Britain, which I like to read as a mutant reflection of very British preoccupations for ceremony, tradition and class.  But it's one thing to sit around writing about this.  It's quite another to be sat in a small, hot room full of people that really sincerely believe.

Looking around I wonder who these people are, what they do and where they go at night. Chatting outside later I learn that they consider themselves a family - members are husbands and wives, godfathers to each other's children and so on.  To be honest the word 'family' in this context makes Charlie Manson (that other famous beast of the 20th Century) spring unbidden to mind.  I feel guilty making the association, especially as everyone here appears nice and polite enough.  That said, I still felt a little bit like Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man.

Adding to my nerviness is knowing the unfortunate tendency of some strands of Paganism to trip over into far right views.  Hanging out with Satanist Nazis is the last thing I want to do on a sunny Friday evening, so I find myself desperately hoping that I don't spot any old NF tattooes in this pleasantly diabolical crowd.  Thankfully everything feels relatively apolitical - perhaps I've just read a bit too much about the vagaries of Norwegian Black Metal and their predilection for Norse mythology.

I love discovering what's going on in the hidden places of London, sniffing out interesting subcultures and meeting the kinds of people you only hear faint whispers of.  In that regard I had a hell of an interesting time - though not knowing anything about theo-humanism or this particular brand of Paganism left me afloat in a deep, murky, unfamiliar sea.  As I cycled home my head spun trying to think of some way to conclude my thoughts on the night.  Then I stopped off at a supermarket to buy some dinner.  

Oh shiiiiiiiit!

Friday, July 18, 2014

'Mood Indigo' (2014) directed by Michel Gondry

Friday, July 18, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

There are few things more tedious than having someone tell you their dreams. This is precisely the same tedium that Mood Indigo induces: “and then the alarm clock turned into a spider, and a little mouse man ran out of a pipe, and then an eel popped its head out of a tap and I had to chase it! Isn't that CRAZY?!” If your measure of good filmmaking is how much random bullshit you can cram into a movie, then director Michael Gondry's latest definitely delivers.

The largely irrelevant plot concerns the relationship of Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Early in the film they meet, fall in love and get married. Then Chloe gets infected by a water lily which grows in her lung. Treatment is expensive and soon Colin's finances are spent, forcing him to take up a job incubating proton guns (which involves him lying on a pile of dirt for 24 hours at a time). Pretty crazy, right?  Well, not really - underneath the constant visual assault and self-consciously surreal plot developments it's actually a straightforward terminal illness weepie, but one so wrapped up in tawdry quirks that it's difficult to care.

I have a hell of a lot of time for Michel Gondry: one of the smartest, most inventive directors around. His successes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his brilliant music videos are awe-inspiring works of genius. I even have a soft spot for his failures: Green Hornet was a deserved flop, but even within that there's solid gold nuggets of sublime cinema. With all that in mind it's with a heavy heart that I have to report that Mood Indigo just isn't very good.

What a wacky car.  What will they think of next?
From the opening shots you sense that this is the product of a director let off the leash. It's as if Gondry has gone through his notebooks and realized every unused idea he's ever had – throwing everything into making this the most Michel Gondry film ever. But, like guzzling down a big box of chocolates in one go, too much of a good thing makes you sick. Concepts that would have made for a great three or four minute music video are splattered hodgepodge throughout the movie – and worse, they don't mean anything other than being weird for the sake of being weird.

For example, what does an ice-rink attendee having the head of a pigeon mean? How much does it inform us as to the themes of the film to have a pair of shoes growl like dogs? Why are the side panels of that car made of perspex? All this imagery piles up on top of itself in a chaotic, tangled mess – the few genuinely powerful symbolic elements drowned underneath. Worse, the stop motion, hand-made nature of Gondry's many, many weird gee-gaws induces a kind of doomy queasiness, like being on a drug trip that's starting to go bad.

The upshot of this is the near total crushing of any humanity in the film. Duris and Tatou, so moving together in Cedric Klapisch's recent Chinese Puzzle, do their best to wring a drop of pathos from this material, but even actors of their calibre can't contend with a cinematic world designed to focus our attention anywhere else other than on the human elements. The end result is that when the credits roll you think “that's it?!”

Oh right, some kind of cloud thing.  Fair enough.
The closest cinematic companion to Mood Indigo isn't Gondry's previous work, but that of Terry Gilliam. At Gilliam's best, the rush of ideas and imagery is exhilarating, at his worst it induces a numb fatigue in the viewer, like a boxer who's gone a few too many rounds and stopped caring about taking the blows. More specifically, this film reminded me of Gilliam's 2005 nadir Tideland, a nauseatingly unpleasant movie that also throws everything it can at the screen in an attempt to disguise that there's not much going on (also the only film I've ever seen that opens with the director half apologizing as he explains that you probably won't like what you're about to see).

I feel incredibly guilty criticising a film for being too imaginative. The vast majority of cinema is a sludgy grey morass of cliches and banal platitudes. Mood Indigo certainly isn't that – on the rare moments that it does work it becomes briefly magnificent. The slow slide into desaturation throughout the film beautifully conveys depression and guilt, as do the cobwebs and muck that slowly accumulate in our hero's apartment. But these tiny highlights are swamped by a flood of pointless visual bullshit that distracts and annoys much more than it does inform.

For all that I didn't enjoy watching Mood Indigo, it's a difficult film to genuinely dislike. Even if the end result doesn't work, the enthusiasm baked into every single frame very faintly rubs off on you. Then again, I might be singing a more pissed off song had I seen the original 131 minute cut of the film. After a critical beating by festival critics, the theatrical release has been pared down to a svelte 94 minutes. Frankly, even the truncated version feels overlong – by the final act I was bordering on exasperated, checking my watch to see how much more I had to endure.

I respect the creativity that's gone into Mood Indigo.  I appreciate the effort it must have taken to make.  I'm glad that films like this can exist.  But it's there's no escaping that this is a failure as a movie.  


Mood Indigo is released August 1st.

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