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Friday, October 31, 2014

'The Skeleton Twins' (2014) directed by Craig Johnson

Friday, October 31, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Suicide and comedy seem unlikely bedfellows, yet from Harold & Maude and Groundhog Day onwards the two have proved fruitful territory for comedy.  Once you have a character who's given up on life you've got someone with a plausible reason for acting in an outrageous manner. Sure it's morbid, but my favourite comedy tends to be laced with sadness and desperation.  

The Skeleton Twins isn't exactly a comedy, but boy is it funny.   You might have your doubts based on the opening, but bear with me. Here we see Milo (Bill Hader) writing a glib suicide note: ''To whom it may concern, see ya later.''  He then slices his wrists open. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) stares blankly at the bathroom mirror, holding a handful of pills.  

She's about to gobble them when her phone rings.  She's informed that her brother, who she hasn't seen in ten years, has tried to kill himself.  Putting her own suicide on hold, she travels to California to see him.  Feeling a sense of filial loyalty she invites him to live with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in upstate New York.  The stage is thus set for a knotty, mordant drama about inter-family relations, depression and the impossibility of completely healing trauma.

I bet you're laughing already!  Well, you will.  The key to The Skeleton Twins is that while it always treats Milo and Maggie's problems with utmost sincerity, these characters are too smart to truly wallow in self-pity.  Despite their initial differences, Milo is a depressed, gay failed actor living in California and Maggie is in apparent domestic bliss and trying for a baby, the two are immediately and obviously two sides of the same coin.


In each other they see their their insecurities, paranoias and lack of confidence reflected - resulting in a fractious relationship that spins between familial intimacy and vicious arguments.  A high water mark for happiness is a touchingly hilarious scene where the two get high on nitrous oxide; collapsing in an anoxic, befuddled daze in the corner as they gigglingly confess secrets to each other. It's funny, sad and kind of cute all at once.  Scenes like this cement the perfectly balanced double act that Hader and Wiig have constructed. It's a pleasure to see two actors complementing each other's performances so well; mutually building their performances from the dramatic footholds the other provides.

Of the two I preferred Wiig, though only by a hair.  Her misery is tangible and we see rather than be told of her lack of control over her (rather unsympathetic) actions.  She wears the consumed expression of someone suffering from intense guilt with no real way to alleviate it. Though she's obviously beautiful she emerges in the later traumatic scenes pale, drawn and looking as if she hasn't had a good nights sleep in weeks.  

The supporting cast are no slouch either.  Ty Burrel as Rich, Milo's former highschool teacher and lover, comes at his role with a stone-faced permanence.  His face is almost mask-like; neat, trimmed and with his thick-rimmed glasses almost Clark Kentish.  Given that he's repressed his homosexuality we quickly read these stony-faced features convey a inner turmoil.

But it's Luke Wilson's Lance who really, really shines in a supporting role.  In a film of slightly haughty, effete intellectuals he's a bouncy, loveable and behaves rather like an excited labrador.  Every time he bounded onto the frame I had to suppress a smile, his simple good nature and optimistic outlook a joy to watch.  In Lance we get our example of what a purportedly 'normal' person should be behaving like and though our sympathies always lie with the screwed up siblings, his character demonstrates that conventional domestic bliss might not be such a bad thing after all.

He makes me feel happy just looking at him.
At times The Skeleton Twins feels like a headlong race towards death. Milo and Maggie seem to be caught in a kind of sibling rivalry as to who's more screwed up, with every other character helpless to stop the two destroying each other  This means that though Maggie is theoretically supposed to be helping Milo recuperate, the two end up acting as each other's therapist.  Taking life advice from a man who's just tried to kill himself could seem corny in the wrong hands, but there's a bedrock of love in the film that can't be poisoned by their various deep-seated issues.

Very much an actor's film, The Skeleton Twins only slightly falls apart with some rather humdrum visuals and sound, and the occasional blob of melodrama.  The ending in particular feels airlifted from another, far more heavyhanded, movie and there's the odd line here and there that feels overly didactic; 'this is the message of the film and by god you're going to know it'.

Very much worth a watch, if only to see two extremely talented actors bouncing off each other.  It's a cut above your average indie dramedy, but this is purely on the shoulders of Wiig and Hader, who elevate the material beyond cliche and all but force us to emotionally relate to Milo and Maggie, two wonderfully complex characters.

★★★★

The Skeleton Twins is released 7th November 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Las Maravillas: The Lost Souls of Mictlan' at The Rose Lipman Building, 28th October 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


 Recreating the nine levels of the Aztec Underworld in the basement of a community centre is an ambitious undertaking.  Taking inspiration from elaborate and involved US-style Halloween haunted houses, The Dreamery company combines immersive theatre with installation and performance art.  So, theoretically, we leave the drudgery of a rainy London October behind and venture underground to the realm of the dead, to be guided, tested and transformed by the spirits of the afterlife.

Unfortunately, while I can't fault their ambition, and though there's a lot of neat stuff inside Las Maravillas, it doesn't really work.  First suspicions that this wasn't going to be a mindblowingly intense experience came as we were being ushered down to the basement. The person guiding us down said "I'm supposed to be telling you a story right now, but I haven't got time".

I'm not the hardest person to please in the world, but when the first contact we have with the show says they can't be bothered to perform it sets off some worryingly loud alarm bells.  I was there on a press ticket, but I'd imagine this would have annoyed me even more had I forked out £10 (or £15 on the weekend).  If the rest of the show had hugely improved from that I might not have mentioned it, but throughout you get the sense that a few members of the cast have their minds elsewhere.

For example, throughout the show you travel with a group of 6 or 7 other audience members.  At one point you're split up and come back together and another person has been added to the group.  He's then plucked from among us and something grisly happens to him. I'm guessing the intent is to create a sense of danger, terrifying us by blurring the lines between participant and performer.  This didn't happen because the first thing he said, in a slightly annoyed tone, was "Are you group 6 or 7?" followed by him gently shoving me out of the way for apparently sitting in the wrong place - all of which combine to make it a bit difficult to maintain the illusion that we're in the afterlife.

This is a shame, because for every slightly surly cast member there's three or four that are genuinely giving their all.  The experience is segmented into a series of rooms, each occupied by an inhabitant spirit who performs/tests you.  I don't want to spoil exactly what happens, but the sad skeleton lady with the straw in the first room was genuinely spooky and slightly touching, as was the sad skeleton lady in the room with all the cotton wool.  On the actually-pretty-unsettling front are three masked, predatory women who writhe aggressively around one of the rooms.  What they all share is a willingness to get right up in the audience's face, as if daring us to maintain eye contact with them.

Paradoxically the best of these actors also finds themselves in the most awkwardly designed room.  The 'finale' of the show involves meeting a woman who beckons you from behind some branches.  You poke your head through and she cradles your face, speaking softly and insistently about your relationship with her, before asking me to dance with her.  Amongst everything here it was this intimate moment that genuinely creeped me out.

Photo by @LilyLippy
Problem is she has to have this one-on-one moment with everyone in your group, so by the time the last person gets to talk with her they'll have been waiting for more than 10 minutes. The room we wait in is nicely designed, full of spooky stuff and has a creepy ambient soundtrack playing - but it increasingly feels like a waiting room.  A few of my group got bored waiting and just left, unceremoniously popped back into the basement of a community centre.

There's a distinct lack of momentum in the way we progress through it, which is a shame because there's a hell of a lot of potential here.  The production design is an excellent example of maximising a budget; the atmosphere crammed with tiny little design touches. There's a make-do canniness at play; for example, repurposing hairnets as spider-webs, cleverly designed gory blindfolds and the well-realised idea of changing the texture under the audience's feet as a way of marking transitions between spaces.  

Some of these rooms are striking installations in their own right; impressive even if divorced from the show around it.  An early room is lit by strobe lights and pulsating sounds, disorientating the audience by refusing to let us focus on exactly what the weird objects around us are made of.  A later room with a clock motif is similarly beautifully lit, shadows of cogs and gears floating around the space.  

It's so obvious that a lot of careful thought and subsequent hard work has gone into Las Maravillas that I feel a bit guilty criticising it.  But unfortunately, for all these wonderful flourishe the audience were often made to feel like a bit of an inconvenience.  This prevents us from becoming immersed in the show and as soon as our minds are elsewhere the illusion shatters.

Now, all these criticisms could maybe be chalked up to opening night jitters.  Maybe once the bugs are ironed out audiences on other nights really will be able to lose themselves in the Aztec Underworld.  I really hope The Dreamery achieves what their goals over the next few nights, but I left a bit disappointed.

'Las Maravillas: The Lost Souls of Mictlan' is at The Rose Lipman Building until 1st November, Tickets here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'Grand Guignol' at the Southwark Playhouse, 27th October 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


That I walked out of Grand Guignol with blood spattered across my face tells you everything. It happened while a woman was convulsing in terrified agony as her eyeballs were gouged out, meaning that I, sat on the front row got a sprinkling of the red stuff. Naturally I was pleased as punch; for the Grand Guignol isn't a place you attend to appreciate the subtleties of the human condition, to revel in high minded intellectualism or to appreciate aesthetic beauty.  

No, it's where you tremble as you wade hip deep through ichorous gore! 

Thrill to a cacophonous symphony of screams!! 

G-g-g-ghoulishly grimace at monstrous actions conceived beyond the realm of sanity!!!

Huh.. I went a bit Vincent Price for a moment there.  Well, with Halloween just around the corner it's difficult to resist a touch of the macabre slipping in, something encouraged - nay - demanded - at Grand Guignol, a play as ghoulish as it is hilarious, demented as it is sharp and crammed to bursting point with gooey horrors of all kinds.

Set in early 20th century Montmartre, the play takes place behind the scenes of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a venue that, more than 50 years after it's closure remains the byword for over-the-top blood n' guts.  Our cast of characters are the real-life talent behind the theatrical phenomenon; Max Maurey (Andy Williams), the pragmatic and pugnacious owner of the establishment; Henri (Robert Portal), male lead and colossal ham; Maxa (Emily Raymond), female lead and "the world's most assassinated woman"; Ratineau (Paul Chequer), gore designer and Tom Savini of his day and; Andre De Lord (Jonathan Broadbent), the only playwright an  imagination twisted enough to concoct these diabolical phantasmagoria.


Tossed into their world of plaster limbs, rubber intestines and buckets of (stage) blood is nervy psychologist Dr Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson).  He's in charge of an asylum that's exploring the limits of the human condition and seeks to understand De Lord's mind; to unravel what is about his past that allows him to summon up such theatrical devilry. This all comes in combination with the mysterious murders  of the 'Monster of Montmartre', who prowls the streets disembowelling his victims and carving pentagrams into their lifeless corpses.

Given the grim subject matter and warped characters, it's perhaps surprising that above all else, Grand Guignol is an extremely lighthearted farce.  These characters are all extremely broad types, their personalities firmly cranked up to 11.  So Maxa isn't just a talented horror actor, she's a twisted gorehound increasingly unable to discern the theatre from reality. Henri isn't just a lead actor, he's an egomaniacal, impossibly verbose blowhard.  De Lord isn't some talented playwright, he's haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe and fuelled by barely suppressed childhood trauma.

The extremely talented cast navigate this material like they're born to play these characters, every performance perfectly pitched for maximise the comedy potential of the material.  I particularly enjoyed every single perfectly enunciated line recited by Robert Portal, whose face pushes the limits of expressiveness. I'd read that this play had been performed as a straight horror a couple of years ago, something practically impossible to imagine after seeing this.  To spoil these gags would be a sin, so I'll refrain from listing all my favourites, but one stab at theatre critics in particular brought the house down.

Fortunately, Grand Guignol being so damn funny doesn't preclude it from also being horrifying. What you quickly realise is that stage violence and gore has a different quality to that of cinema or television. Seeing a person have their throat slashed before your very eyes, blood oozing from their wounds as they twitch their last mere meters away is much more intense an experience that anything you'd see in over the separation of a screen; the harsh stage lighting casting gruesome shadows across their wounds.  


The sensible, logical part of you is telling you that it's obviously fake, that you're looking at a rubber prop with a pipe in it, but some primal, caveman part of the brain sees the sticky crimson blood and reacts instinctively, sending unavoidable tingles of terror reverberating around your body.  It's this sensation, laughing at the gory audacity that makes the comedy feel so alive.

Best of all, this show does a decent job of roughly emulates the original Grand Guignol. These characters were all real people, and De Lord really did work with a psychologist, named Binet to maximise the horror potential of his plays.  Notably, all the miniature vignettes we see are actually bitesize summaries of De Lord's work, making this both entertainment and theatrical history lesson all in one.

So I deeply dug this; a fantastic production that's perfectly timed for Halloween.  As the sun sinks further over the horizon and temperatures drop, get yourself down to Southwark and suffer some real chills! Highly recommended.

Grand Guignol is at the Southwark Playhouse until the 22nd of November.  Tickets here.

Huge thanks to Rebecca Felgate at Official Theatre for the ticket. Details here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

'Lady Gaga's artRAVE' at the o2, 26th October 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Prior to Lady Gaga I was a musically boring fuck.  The kind of chump who quivered at the announcement of a new Radiohead album or swooned over linen-shirted, bearded middle-aged men who clutch acoustic guitars like drowning men clutch liferafts.  Then I chanced across her 2009 VMA performance of Paparazzi.  Four minutes later, lost in a blizzard of glitter, flashbulbs, crutches, lots fake blood and demented piano playing, I was smitten.  

From that point on, as far as I was concerned this was it.  A perfect storm of performance art, theatre, pop and fashion - all encapsulated in a smart as hell, beautiful and risk-taking New Yorker.  Everything else in music seemed suddenly desaturated; as far as I'm concerned there's more honesty, truth and beauty in lyrics like "Let's have some fun / This beat is sick / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick" than there are in a thousand albums by noodly, string-backed acoustic warblers.


For a couple of years it was good, and we enjoyed Lady Gaga's imperial phase.  The triple combo of videos for Bad Romance, Telephone and Alejandro cemented her as the pop vision of the future; suddenly everyone started to look a little cooler.  Then came the colossally hyped Born This Way, which despite a tonne of great songs felt slightly bloated.  Then out came ARTPOP, which is actually pretty good, but the knives were pre-sharpened.  The pop music mill hungers for new flesh; and even Gaga, a popstar who shuffles personalities like a cardshark shuffles a deck, couldn't ride it forever.

And so we come to the artRAVE.  Is this Gaga's Waterloo?  One last big budget, stadium-sized splurge of extravagance before she slips into a comfortable place in the pop firmament; beloved by her fanbase, fondly remembered but never again truly on top?  If it is she certainly isn't going quietly; from start to finish we're dragged into a shimmering slice of pop nirvana.  Perspex walkways snake in organic shapes around the arena floor, allowing Gaga and her dancers to move around and over the audience.

This 'Little Monsters' friendly staging gives this night a unique sparkle.  With the heavenly scenery, the arena takes the aura of a religious revival with Gaga as high priestess leading us to sartorially adventurous promised land of sexual tolerance and unlimited self expression. I imagine that if you're not a fan, Gaga's messianic streak might seem a touch egotistical. But she's among her die-hard fans, and to them she's divinity made flesh.  You can taste their rapture it in the way they stretch their glitter-polished fingers towards her, hoping her touch will cure them of some modern scrofula.

:3
This builds to an emotional pinnacle when a note is thrown on stage.  Gaga picks it up and reads out a message from a cervical cancer sufferer who explains that Lady Gaga's poptimistic message has helped her fight it.  Gaga summons her up to the stage and in a flurry of hugs and kisses grants her personal blessing, then she parks her on a piano stool and devotes an acoustic reworking of Born This Way to her. There's not a dry eye in the house.  Oh well, if you're going to have a pop messiah you could do far worse than Lady Gaga.

What surrounds this particularly special little moment is a totally competent pop show that's only slightly hobbled by being  based around a slightly below-par album.  Of the new songs the perverted mud fuck stomp of Swine is an easy stand out, bleepy/bloopy aerodynamic mission statement of Artpop and the sincere loveliness of Dope and Gypsy.  In a 'fuck you' move to her detractors she opens with five songs from her newest album and delivers a slightly out of character broadside against people who are "just here for the hits".


After that it's a relief to hear the still-futuristic ultraparty beat of Just Dance kick in. Cheekily she mashes Poker Face and Telephone into a mini-medley, before launching into a top class Paparazzi.  All these are stone-cold poptimistic stunners, and with bass thudding throughout the arena, lasers blasting to the rafters and bewigged, joyful punters bopping around with dopey grins on their faces.  

I was one of them.  The simple sight of her dancing around on a stage in increasingly sillier outfits (cow patterned octopus girl, furrily-winged Koons-balled angel, what appear to be some folding chairs) flicks some innate joy-switch in my head, sending me spiralling into a blissy paroxysms of joy.

That said, as ace as this was, it wasn't as good as The Monster Ball.  That was a Gaga resplendent, confidently perched at the top of the pops.  artRAVE finds Lady Gaga ever so slightly on the back foot, obviously stinging from the critical and commercial reception of Artpop and taking solace in the unconditional love of her hardcore Little Monsters. This makes artRAVE more of a transitory show, one eye in the triumphant past and one looking towards an uncertain future.

I'm still deeply smitten.  I'll always be.  But I'm hungry to see where she's going next.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Here Lies Love' at the National Theatre, 17th October 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Surprise surprise the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim is absolutely fantastic. It's not as if iconic musicians haven't come unstuck in heading towards musical theatre before, but let's face it, if anyone is going to make a goddamn amazing musical about the corrupting influence of materialism, it's David Byrne (with Fatboy Slim more than capable of supplying some cool beats).

Here Lies Love is a musical biography of Imelda Marcos, widow of Phillippine President Ferdinand Marco.  Beginning as a 'simple country girl' sleeping on boxes in the garages of Tacloban she claws her way towards opulence on the back of her rmarriage.  From its beginnings as a populist movement led by a war hero their regime gradually slides towards authoritarian tyranny, with Imelda effectively ruling the country in the 1980s. Eventually the situation becomes untenable, concluding with the peaceful 'People Power Revolution' of 1986 that forced the Marcoses to flee the country by helicopter.  Following her departure the poor of Manila ransack the palace, famously discovering her gargantuan shoe collection.

Them's the facts, so how do they work as a musical?  At the core of Byrne's vision is the idea of experiencing history in a nightclub.  The audience are everywhere; gazing down at events from high above the stage or standing around a transformable stage. The cast move in and around us, at times hugging us and incorporating us into their choreography.  This constant motion gives the show a unique energy; seducing us with the extravagance of the Marcos lifestyle.


Musically this is firmly, fiercely and religiously pop inclined.  The show has rightly been described as a 'poperetta', stuffed full of gossamer light synth beats, booty-shaking disco bass and catchy choruses that all but beg to be sung along to (and we do).  Obvious highlights are the recurring title track, Here Lies Love (which gets its title from what Imelda wants engraved on her tomb), We Are The People of the Philippines and the climactic Why Don't You Love Me?  All the songs are covered in Byrne's distinctive lyrical fingerprints - it's all too easy to hear his voice in this music, no matter who's singing them.

There's a risk that translating the life of Imelda Marcos into super fun happy disco times would trivialise her crimes against the people of Manila.  After all, underneath all the shoes, fur coats, haute couture and partying lies torture, despotism and corruption.  Here Lies Love is even broadly sympathetic to Imelda, though the triumphant climax involves her being unceremoniously booted from the country, her panicked lack of comprehension renders her more pathetic than outright evil.

Instead, Here Lies Love shows how the understandable desire to escape poverty becomes monstrous when taken to its logical conclusion.  The young Imelda is practically a Disney heroine in her misery, singing pleasant little ballads about how she's the flower in a ruined world, she's practically Cinderella.  Imelda gets her fairytale ending about a third of the way through the play, winning the heart of not only her dashing Prince Charming but of the people.  Here Lies Love is about the consequences of living out your fantasy life.


Money is the root of all evil, and once the addiction of materialism has gotten its hooks into this poor country girl she begins a metamorphosis that's the equal of anything Kafka or Cronenberg put out.  This is as much a visual transformation as it is a narrative one; after beginning the show in a simple, white peasant dress with her hair loosely around her shoulders she begins to become angular and insectoid.  Her hair tightens into a hard beehive, her outfits harden into a chitinous carapace of iridescent green with wing-like fins - even her features seem to grow harsher under the high-contrast stage lighting.  

We can almost see the humanity draining from Imelda as the show goes on, the innocent peasant systematically replaced by the legendary 'steel butterfly'.  This steady transformation is contrasted with the unchanging innocence of Estrella, her childhood friend.  The unsettling conclusion is that there's nothing unique or special about Imelda the person; rather that she threw herself into a machine that warps people into monsters.

So Here Lies Love functions as a broadside against the precise kind of fun we're having so much of.  When we jiggle our asses to Fatboy Slim's eminently danceable beats, become drunk on the elaborate stagecraft and marvel at the astonishing costumes we're proving ourselves susceptible to the same temptations that created this supreme villainess of shoes.

Of course this is very much having your cake and eating it.  Here Lies Love is one of the most joyous musical experiences I've had all year.  And therein lies a paradox.  Audiences skip and boogie out of the stage door, pumped up for more partying and humming the show's eminently hummable tunes - on their own individualistic paths to awfulness.  It's a sensation that leaves you giddy and queasy in equal measure.  

Be sure to experience it for yourself.

'The Man in the Orange Jacket' (2014) directed by Aik Karapetian [LFF 2014]

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Apparently, The Man in the Orange Jacket is Latvia’s first ever horror film. The country may be late to the party, but boy oh boy they’ve come out swinging. Clocking in at a fat-free 71 minutes, this nearly dialogue-free psychological slasher goes for the throat early and often, treading into territory so pitch-black that it caused a couple of walkouts at the London Film Festival. What atrocity was it that disgusted these people so much? Well, let’s see…

Within the first couple of minutes of the film we’ve seen a brutal double murder. A capitalist fatcat boss is sat in his plush bedroom, explaining to his trophy wife how laying off so many workers has stressed him out. She reassures him that a sunny holiday in Italy will wash those worries away. Then she screams. There’s a man sitting in the room, and he’s wearing an orange jacket.

He wordlessly approaches the terrified couple and pulls out a hammer. *THWACK!* The rich man’s mouth flaps like a fish out of water as he collapses onto the silk sheets, blood gently pooling behind his head. The orange jacketed man then stands up and listens for the pitter-patter of feet on the marble floors. He pursues her through the house and just as she thinks she’s out of danger… *THWACK!*


★★★★

Friday, October 24, 2014

'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night' (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour [LFF 2014]

Friday, October 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


"A vampire in a hijab is such a provocative image that I’m surprised it’s never been used before. This mashup of predatory, sexually charged vampire imagery and the hijab’s minimizing of a woman’s personality, body and mobility makes for a cracking incongruity that director Ana Lily Amirpour exploits to the max, turning a clumsy mass of heavy black cloth into her vampire antiheroine’s bat-wings.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, located in a bizarre future Iran. The streets are largely devoid of life and the inhabitants all housebound drug addicts or walled-in rich. The camera pans around the empty city, casually showing us a river bed full of rotting corpses. What the hell has gone wrong in this world?"


★★★

'The Hunters Grimm' by Teatro Vivo, 22nd October 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



Deptford High Street doesn't exactly scream 'fairytale'.  Half of it  is a building site for some shiny new development and half is mouldy old Victorian brickwork that miraculously dodged the Luftwaffe bombs.  Neither chromed enough to house braying city traders nor run-down enough to draw in gentrifying creatives, the street rumbles along in a tangle of transitory cash n' carries and mobile phone shops intermingled with the occasional splotch of boho trendiness.  But now there's something new in town; these darkened streets populated by sinister old crones, giggling princesses and tormented lovers.

The Hunters Grimm, a new production by Teatro Viva, adds a sparkle to the place. Beginning in the Deptford Lounge library, we're introduced to the brothers Grimm, one of whom, Wilhelm, is racked with manic misery that every single story he encounters ends unhappily.  After all, "Happily ever after" is a relatively recent concept, before Disney came along classical children's stories would be as likely to end in great gushing gouts of blood as they would in smooches and song.

And so the audience is tasked with curing Wilhelm's depression by hunting out a happy story on the streets of Deptford.  Clad in fetching purple bowties our team of 'Fearless Philologists' heads out into the cool October night to try and spot likely candidates for a good yarn. This quest takes up the rest of the night, the audience gently guided around by larger than life characters like The Prince of Deptford, the snoozy Gunter, the animal Musicians of Bremen and Rapunzel's, sad, blind suitor


As soon as we begin the streets gain a fantastical shine.  We're herded towards a mysterious old woman in a green velvet cloak, she moans that she's been left off the guest list to see the new royal baby.  Straightaway we're sucked into Teatro Vivo's slightly off-kilter world, which allows us a peek beyond the veil.  She explains her situation, leads us across the road then, in a flash, turns and transforms from kindly woman into malevolent witch, vowing to poison the baby.  It's a startling transformation and a fantastic performance from a woman who I later learn is 92!

From this promising start we tumble deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, winding down the streets, through shops, down back alleys and into bars.  God only knows how you go about organising something like this, though the fried chicken vendors of Deptford are impressively tolerant of strangely dressed weirdos yelling "Have you seen Hansel and Gretel?!" through their door.

Performing in public also adds a ton of interesting little wrinkles.  Passers by crane their necks in confusion as they come across eccentric, costumed people acting in very peculiar ways.  The performers even try their best to get them involved, cheekily quizzing them about bizarre subjects.  Similarly, simply being out on the streets adds some spice to the drama; epic romance becoming more touching when it concludes next to a pile of trash lit by the halogen glow of a street light.


Dragging these fantastical characters off the page and onto the streets modernises them in ways that recalls some of my favourite fiction. This London street/fairytale combination most reminded me of Neil Gaiman's book/TV series Neverwhere, about a London Below, where'The Angel Islington hobnobs with Old Bailey.  The attraction of Neverwhere is exploring the soft point where fiction and reality intersect, a playground that The Hunters Grimm similarly frolics in.

Underlying all that is a simple, exhilarating sense of adventure and discovery.  We never know where we're going to go next or who we're going to meet.  So when, for example, we're ushered out the back door of a deli, through a fire exit and emerge in a back alley there's a genuine sense of excitement.  This unpredictability pays off big time, I don't want to spoil the sights you'll see, but they range from disturbing to the wondrous.

I don't think The Hunters Grimm is for everyone.  If you'd rather park yourself in a comfy seat and passively consume a show then constant activity and participatory nature the show could cause you to have a nervous night.  On the other hand, if you have a burning lust for adventure and a willingness to think on your feet you'll find few other things in London as satisfying.

The Hunters Grimm begins at the Deptford Lounge, 7.30pm, Wednesday 22 October – Saturday 8 November.  Tickets are £12 (£10 conc)s available here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Parallel I-IV' (2014) directed by Harun Farocki [LFF 2014]

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment


It'd be a shame if the London Film Festival were entirely pretty actors in expensive clothes prancing around on a drizzly Leicester Square red carpet.  Sometimes you want to dig a little deeper. That's where 70 year old Czech born German experimental documentarians come in. Screened as part of the Experimenta strand, the late Harun Farocki's Parallel I-IV is a series of short documentaries that explore the politics, imagery and narrative limitations of videogames.

I enjoy the odd videogame but I have no illusions as to their worth.  Maybe one day they will evolve into a worthwhile activity, but as it stands they're glorified Skinner boxes designed to dole out doses of emotion.  The most powerful illusion that a videogame creates, the barometer by which we measure their quality, is the creation of a false sense of accomplishment (popularly known as 'gameplay').  Whether it's becoming a champion race car driver, winning the world cup or becoming the top crime boss in a city, what videogames ultimately simulate best is success.

In this regard the best videogames act as opiates, granting the player a temporary tingle of fake happiness that quickly fades, needing to be supplemented by another fix.  And then another, ad infinitum.  There's a reasonable argument that other media offer the same thing; the adrenaline rush of a good action movie or the shiver down the spine when those star-crossed lovers finally smooch.  But whilst other media are often able to make you more intelligent and give you new perspectives on the world, videogames tend to make you dumber through a seductive narrative of individual empowerment.  



With that in mind, the key to the Parallel series success is exploring videogames from an outsider's perspective.  Harun Farocki, having no emotional attachment to the medium, comes at it with a clean mind, free from preconceptions as to how games work or what conditions of 'good play' are.  What interests him is the idea of poking at the edges of virtual worlds, observing behavioural algorithms and examining methods of representing reality.  

An aspect of games that's often overlooked is the accepted boundaries of behaviour for a player.  Experienced players know the ropes, for example, they instinctively grasp the boundaries of a level and capabilities of their avatar and, so, over the course of normal play, won't try to squeeze through barriers that demarcate where the game world 'ends'.  

In footage from L.A. Noire we follow a policeman around an impressively rendered 1940s Los Angeles, the only obviously unrealistic thing the impassable roadblocks preventing the player from leaving the city.  A seasoned player wouldn't give these a second thought, yet Farocki drives his virtual cop car directly into them over and over again.  We see a similar process in Red Dead Redemption, a cowboy meanders his way across an epic prairie, only to plunge to his death when he crosses a certain, unmarked point on the map.  Open world games sell themselves on player freedom, yet Farocki exposes that freedom as strictly defined.

Farocki shows us repeated clips the player behaving in ways that expose the limits of the game.  The most striking are his manipulations of NPC behaviour.  In Mafia 2 he leads the player character towards an old woman who's smoking a cigarette, standing directly in front of her and blankly staring.  In the course of normal gameplay we'd hear a short voice clip from her telling us to get out of her way and we'd move on.  In Parallels she begins cycling through repetitive voiceclips and animations, smoking an infinite cigarette.  There's a performative aspect to videogames that often goes overlooked; the player encouraged not to shatter the illusion of the gameworld by playing their role as the designer expects. 



Examples like these expose the ideological limitations of the medium, which arise from the basic need for the player to be at the centre of events. This means the vast majority of games present a solipsist world in which the player is God (even games with thousands of simultaneous players tailor the experience of each player to tell them they're 'the chosen one').  Players thus become immortal and nearly omniscient - everything in the gameworld designed to entertain them and them alone.

Given that hardcore gamers immerse themselves for endless hours in worlds where they are the centre of attention is it any wonder that their identities become warped?  In the ongoing #Gamergate farrago, self-styled 'gamers' have reacted with astonished horror at their pastime being exposed to cultural analysis, reading criticism of their entertainment products as criticism of themselves. They are trapped in a confused loop: "The feminist says the game is sexist, which means that I am sexist, but I know I am not sexist, therefore the game is not sexist. If the game is not sexist then the criticism is false, therefore the feminist is a liar therefore she is a whore therefore fuck u whore i will rape u so hard."

Reactions like #Gamergate show us the extreme consequences of videogames' operant conditioning, the player's personality becoming accustomed to an endless cycle of masturbatory, egocentric wish fulfilment that's easy to achieve in the virtual world but impossible in reality.  Farocki's film scratches at the surface of this, but it only takes the tiniest effort to peek beyond the veil and expose videogames as a medium with an inherently limited scope.

Consider this: after 35 years of cinema we had the formal experimentation of Eisenstein and the narrative and technical genius of Welles' Citizen Kane.  After 35 years of videogames we are still largely mired in corridors full of people to shoot with guns and B-Movie narratives. Graphics have approached photorealism but we haven't progressed beyond Space Invaders with its waves of slowly approaching targets to eliminate.  Perhaps the medium will eventually take a great leap forward (games like Minecraft present promising, if embryonic, possibilities), but from a 2014 perspective that leap feels a long way away.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom' (2014) directed by Jacob Cheung [LFF 2014]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Within the first ten minutes of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, you realize that you’re going to have to seriously recalibrate your cheese tolerance levels. An adaptation of a Chinese novel, the film quickly introduces an apparently endless parade of bearded, angry men in elaborate armour who smirk at the camera like 1950’s serial villains. The rest of the movie is devoted to a super-saccharine, vaseline-on-the-lens love story that comes with a strong whiff of Twilight.

Before I summarize the plot, I should confess that I didn’t understand most of it. The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a pretty well known story in China, being a smash hit novel first and having been adapted to cinema multiple times. So, Jacob Cheung’s film assumes you’re going to know who’s who before it even begins, a tactic that might save on exposition for Chinese audiences but spells bewilderment for everyone else.


★★

'Fury' (2014) directed by David Ayer [LFF 2014]

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


I should hate a film where a rough n' tumble gang of American soldiers mow down a faceless horde of baddies.  But Fury's baddies are Nazis - fuck those guys.   Nazis stand alongside zombies and killer robots as the guilt-free massacre of choice; you can have your hero mow down near-infinite numbers of them in casual bloodlust and still maintain audience sympathy. David Ayer's Fury tests this theory to breaking point, the film wading hip deep through tattered, bloody SS uniforms and bullet-punctured Swastikas.

The titular Fury is a beaten-up, battle-scarred Sherman tank full of beaten-up, battle-scarred men: Sergeant 'Wardaddy' (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Peña), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal).  Set in April 1945, the film shows us the final Allied push into Germany. Victory is all but assured at this point, but pockets of desperate Nazi resistance remain.  So the 2nd Armored Division is tasked with liberating town after town in anticipation of delivering the final blow on the streets of Berlin.

It's grimly miserable work, the remaining Nazi soldiers either suicidal fanatics or child conscripts, the civilians cowed into submission after years of war and the countryside ruinous and muddy.  Our window into this world is Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a US Army typist who through an administrative error has been assigned duty inside Fury. Norman's boyish face looks positively virginal next to the existing crew, who look made out of worn-out shoe leather.  They mock his naivety, hate his innate pacifism and resent his inexperience endangering them.  So Wardaddy decides to bust this kid's cherry, the film chronicling the transformation of Norman, typist into Machine, bloodsoaked warrior.


In Fury, Ayer elevates war to religious calling.  The soldiers, cocooned within the safety of their tank are painted as crusaders, devoted to enacting violence upon their enemies. Spiritual ecstasy is achieved via blasting high caliber rounds through Nazi flesh, the hitherto numbed characters springing to energised life and yelling "DIE YOU NAZI FUCKS!!!". Within this cloistered order, the tank is cathedral, Wardaddy is high priest with 'Bible' as his gunner. The innocent Norman is an initiate to this order, only truly accepted once he's been baptised in blood and rechristened 'Machine'.

It's perhaps not surprising then that one of the closing images is of the tank at the dead centre of a cruciform surrounded by hundreds of blown-apart Nazi corpses.  The image of a war machine on the cross, sacrificed to absolve us of our sins is a pretty damn heavy symbol to throw our way - but what the hell does it mean?

Ayer, a former military man himself, is exploring the distinctions between the 'Golden Generation' that came through the depression and fought World War II and the modern first world - and finding us lacking.  It's notable that Norman, the audience viewpoint, is a mild-mannered typist with no experience of real hardship.  He is us; sat behind our computers tapping away online, tasting war through videogames and action movies.


Fury venerates the Golden Generation, placing them within an amped-up nightmare war that even actual surviving veterans point out is a bit too intense.  Fury's argument is that when push comes to shove we need to relinquish kindness and transform ourselves into brutal executioners, reaching deep within ourselves to unlock our killer instinct.  

With Brad Pitt as a character that takes inordinate pleasure from killing Nazis, comparisons have inevitably been made to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.  A more worthwhile point of comparison is Basterds' film-within-a-film, Stolz der Nation, a faux-Nazi propaganda film where a heroic sniper makes a last stand against hordes of faceless Allied troops.  In Basterds, this film satirises the audience's bloodlust for dead Nazis - and it structurally, visually and tonally echoes Fury.

So where does that leave Fury? A Christological propaganda film that deifies soldiers and killing and encourages us to emulate them?  That's not good!  Also a little worrying is Ayer's technical excellence; the battle scenes are an overwhelming experience with pinpoint perfect editing, sound design and score.  It batters down your critical faculties, emotionally involving you in sadistic satisfaction at launching volleys of bullets into warm Nazi flesh.  

The simple fact that we're vicariously enjoying massacring fascists soothes a little bit - after all if anyone's got it coming it's these bastards.  But a film taking this much salacious pleasure in mass murder, no matter who the enemy, slips into military pornography.  I'm not sure what to make of Fury.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, but the more I think about it, the more that enjoyment freaks me out.  

★★★★

Fury is released today.

Thanks to Vargo of Cinema Discusso for the religious observations

'A Hard Day' (2014) directed by Seong-hoon Kim [LFF 2014]

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


A homicide detective is having a very bad day. Internal affairs are ransacking his desk, his daughter is demanding chocolate cake, he’s been pulled over for a DUI and he’s got a body stashed in his boot. And he’s on his way to his mother’s funeral! And his damn phone won’t stop ringing! And his shoelaces have snapped!

No wonder he’s frazzled.

Detective Ko Gun-soo’s (Lee Sun Gyun) litany of disaster begins with a hit and run. To his credit, his first instinct is to report it, but just as he’s dialling the emergency services his his daughter calls with demands for cake. He’s in shock and mildly freaked out by the sight of a cop car heading his way. Then he makes the first of several bad decisions; dragging the bloody body off the road, wrapping it in a sleeping bag and bundling it into the trunk of his car. Now he has to get rid of it – but how? Well, his mother is being buried today and her coffin is awfully roomy…


★★★

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'The Face of an Angel' (2014) directed by Michael Winterbottom [LFF 2014]

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The Face of an Angel sets its sights on the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, still an open wound in the public consciousness. We instinctively crave digestible narratives of heroes, villains and victims: characters that these events refuse to provide. Villains become victims, heroes become villains and, after years of analysis, evidence and testimony, we’re no closer to knowing what really happened in that Perugia flat than we were the day after it happened. 

Winterbottom chooses to approach the case through meta-narrative.  Our lead is Thomas (Daniel Brühl), an analogue for himself who recognizes the fertile soil of a high profile murder in Siena and explores how he could transform it into worthwhile cinema. Early on the character receives some advice that’s essentially the film’s manifesto: “If you’re going to make a movie, make it a fiction. You cannot tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.


★★★★

Monday, October 20, 2014

'Kill Me Three Times' (2014) directed by Kriv Stenders

Monday, October 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Even now, after Simon Pegg has conclusively 'made it', the sight of him on the big screen feels a bit mischievous. For many he'll always be Tim from Spaced, the sight of him conjuring up happy memories of late night Channel 4 and feeling like you're part of a secret gang for knowing about the show.  This vague feeling of possessiveness towards him can swing both ways: on one hand his screen presence comes preloaded with an enormous amount of audience goodwill, on the other when he's in a bad film you feel a bit let down.


Kill Me Three Times isn't a bad film. But it's not very either.  Pegg plays Charlie Wolf, hitman extraordinaire.  He dresses in black, wears a handlebar moustache and drives a muscle car crammed with high powered weaponry.  Wolf is essentially a cartoon assassin; his style influenced by European spy comics and pulp cinema.  He's also completely amoral; willing to take any dirty job as long as there's a hefty payday at the end of it.

As Wolf puts it; "I don't die.  I thrive!", which'd be an upbeat philosophy if he wasn't at that very moment dying on the sunny West Australian coast.  The question is, how did he get there.  The answer proves to be a complex web of murder, adultery, blackmail, idiocy, insurance fraud and, most interestingly, dental record falsification. Traversing this knot of a plot are stone-cold psycho Lucy (Teresa Palmer), her incompetent, gambling addict dentist husband Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), the scummily violent bar owner Jack (Callan Mulvey), his adulterous wife Alic (Alice Braga) and hunky but dim mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth).

Like a snowball growing in size as it tumbles down a mountain the body count quickly racks up.  In fact, by the time the snowball crashes into the base it's stained crimson red and has legs, fingers and bits of ragged scalp poking from the top of it. This is a filmic universe where the Grim Reaper has finely honed senses of comic timing and dramatic irony.  That, in combination with a cast of self-important scheming bunglers puts us firmly in wannabe-Coen brothers territory; the plot playing out like an antipodean spin on Fargo.

If you're going to stick closely to an established tone, you could pick far worse directors to ape than the Coens, but Kill Me Three Times feels like a bargain basement DVD ripoff of them.  The main problems are with the lacklustre writing; each character has a one-note personality (bumbling, violent, scheming, protective etc) that gets hammered on relentlessly until the character pops it (sometimes by actually being hammered on).

Looking a touch Zardoz there.
This isn't helped by dialogue that's serviceable at best.  Characters state their intentions and then carry them out, leaving precious little room for performative nuance.  Teresa Palmer does a decent job of combining slightly shopworn beauty with homicidal ambition and makes an effective bully of Sullivan Stapleton's moronic dentist.  There's a few weak links; but Alice Braga can be forgiven for being stuck in a part that gives her zero interesting qualities and Luke Hemsworth cements his status as a lesser Hemsworth (how many more damn Hemsworths are there anyway?!).

There's a similarly slack approach to the visuals; though the scenery is often quite beautiful it's shot in a perfunctory way.  The general tactic is to impress with a postcard perfect establishing shot, then revert to a bog-standard framing technique that drains these otherwise rather scenic locations of any verve.  The interiors fare a bit worse, overlit and with a whiff of cheap soap opera to them.

The one thing that makes this experience even vaguely worthwhile is Pegg, obviously relishing playing an out and out bastard.  He plays Wolf as a normal guy who's watched a few too many movies; pretending (even to himself) that he's really a sinister, ultra-competent omniscient badass while actually being a bit dim and extremely lucky.  At the very least Pegg is having fun and it's difficult to begrudge him choosing to spend two weeks in a sunny Australian paradise playing a comedy hitman.

That aside there's very little to recommend about Kill Me Three Times.  It doesn't ever tip over into terribleness but coasts along in a mediocre, passionless gear until the credits finally roll.  There are worse ways you could spend your time, but there's also far better ones too.

★★

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