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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

'The Winter's Tale' at The Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, 29th December 2014

Wednesday, December 31, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


I've got to admit, the prospect of a "steampunk reimagining of Shakespeare" filled me with a cold sense of dread.  For those not down with geeky subcultures, steampunk is essentially Victorian futurism; think Jules Verne as imagined by teenagers who've watched too many Final Fantasy games.  What it boils down to is dirigible airships, quasi-military imperial uniforms, top hats, things with cogs and gears randomly glued onto them, corsets, leather straps and goggles.  Lots of goggles.  Goggles as far as the eye can see!  

Compounding this is that there's few things more excruciating to suffer through than bad Shakespeare.  I've seen some awful, mangled adaptations in my time; actors parping their way through lines they don't quite understand in awkward monotones.  It's this that I expected - spending most of the day prior to the show steeling myself for the worst.

So it was with some surprise that The Shakespeare Sessions's The Winter's Tale turned out to actually be pretty good.  Very quickly you breathe a sigh of relief that this cast can actually deliver this dialogue with rhythm, character and intelligence; you gasp, laugh and scream at just the right points.  More importantly, the adaptation by Ross McGregor cleverly zeroes in on precisely the right elements to give it a very welcome electricity.


Compared to the monolithic cultural totems of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth, A Winter's Tale is a somewhat less familiar tale.  I saw an adaptation of it a very long time ago in Cardiff, but time has withered my memory a bit.  What transpires is a tale of two halves; the first an Othello-esque parade of jealousy, murder, heartbreak and madness as Leontes, King of Sicilia becomes convinced his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione has cheated on him with his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  

Disowning his newborn daughter with the terrifying proclamation "The bastard brains with these my proper hands shall I dash out!he settles for having her dispatched to an area where chance will decide her fate.  Simultaneously he puts his wife on trial (here still wearing her bloodstained birthing dress).  The raving King decries his innocent Queen in front of the whole court, leading to the rapid death of his beloved son, apparently from stress, soon followed by the death of the Queen and the abandonment of his daughter on a stormy cliff.  The officer charged with abandoning the baby is then dispatched with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear".

It's a neat trick, usually Shakespeare bumps off everyone at the end of the play, but by time the first act curtain falls here most of our primary characters are toast.  The second, more comedic half takes place 16 years later, and chronicles the miraculous healing of these wounds.  The cast handles this split between tragedy and comedy confidently, equally able to switch from funereal wailing to upbeat verbal bumpkinnery without missing a step.

Highlights are Christopher Neels' Leontes, who binds together warped paternal passions, fury and a weird sympathy into one strained character.  The character is a difficult one to play given that he has to be a psychotic monster for one act, then gradually be redeemed through grief in the second.  Somehow Neels pulls it off, both terrorising and drawing tears from the audience.  


In a slightly less showy role is Hannah Ellis as Paulina/Dorcas.  She isn't ever the narrative centre of attention, but she nevertheless conveys a sad, slow-burning anger that leads us to wonder if there's a whole other backroom play as interesting as what's front and centre - like a romantic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Robert Myles also knocks us for six as the verbally and physically acrobatic Autolycus.

Much of the unexpected success of this adaptation stems from the fact that the steampunk aspects are minimised as much as possible.  The costumes could just about be Napoleonic era if you squint, the only real concession to the aesthetic the omnipresent goggles.  Why everyone needs a pair of goggles at all times is never quite explained, no-one ever actually uses them, they don't appear to do any flying or driving and things don't seem especially windy.  Best just to ignore them.

Slightly less easy to ignore is the insertion of a rather unElizabethan robot into the final scenes, but after some hemming and hawing I suppose it just about fits what Shakespeare might have had in mind.  More eyebrow raising turn out to be the short musical interludes. These range in quality; the best a moody performance of Leadbelly's In The Pines and the worst a spirited yet thunderously out of place rendition of Lloyd's Dedication to My Ex, replete with a lengthy rap solo where Autolycus channels Andre 3000.

Everything else is so neatly put together that it's easy to do your best to ignore the dumb steampunk style and tonal missteps.  The aim of any good Shakespeare production is to give the audience an emotional wallop as well as an intellectual one.  The Winter's Tale does that in spades, and though it's far from an unreserved success it makes Shakespeare entertaining. That's good enough for me.

The Winter's Tale is at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town until 3rd January 2015.  Tickets here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

London City Nights Best of 2014: Films

Monday, December 29, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


In 2014 I saw 128 films in the cinema (a new record.  Let's say a film is on average two hours long. That means I've spent about more than 10 days of the year sat in darkness, staring blankly at a screen.  I've then emerged into the blinking light of day, headed home and put my thoughts down into lengthy reviews.  Even when I'm not at the cinema I'm gradually working my way through the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die list (nearly done too!).  This leaves me very little time for other forms of media; so why do I devote so much headspace to cinema?  These films are why:

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

'Pride' directed by Matthew Warchus



It's been a bonanza year for British cinema, with standouts like Electricity, Paddington, Mr Turner and Locke (among many others) making going to see homegrown cinema a true pleasure. There's an unfortunate tendency for some Brit-flicks to have both eyes firmly mixed on the US Anglophile market, descending into twee, castrated Richard-Curtisery.  Pride stands in opposition to all that, a film that's both fiercely, sincerely political and goddamn hilarious.

There's a clear-minded underlining of the notion of collective struggle and class solidarity , the film working on the basis that an injury done to a distant comrade is an injury done to you.  Even though the miners and the gay rights activists share nothing in common except for being victimised by Thatcher, they come to recognise that their battles are mere fronts in a wider class war.  This could be heavy-handed, didactic stuff, yet Warchus teaches us in the midst of making us laugh.  Even thinking about the closing scenes gets me a little wobbly a whole six months after seeing it.

'Noah' directed by Darren Aronofsky



It's funny how some films grow in your mind with time.  I dug Noah at first watch, but I only recognised its true stature once it had a couple of months to percolate in the mind. Perhaps it was only in comparison to Ridley Scott's dull and disappointing Exodus that I realised just what Aronofsky's achievements were. It's a colossally weird bit of film-making, a big budget exploration of some bonkers theology told with an utterly straight face and an admirably ambitious set of visual imagery.

If you're on the fence about this (and let's face it, bizarro epic Old Testament flicks aren't everyone's cup of tea), watch this gobsmacking 'creation' sequence.  Throughout this we see echoes of Aronofsky's grubbily staccato editing from Requiem for a Dream and imagery from The Fountain all knitted with an utterly unique, clear-minded logical spirituality that's like nothing else I saw in cinema this year.  That scene's the high point, but the rest isn't far behind, ideas and moments sticking in my subconscious and popping up in daydreams months and months after seeing it. Noah is a brave movie, one that's going to rise in stature over time, and for me it's a virtuoso example of how to tackle mythology in cinema.

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' directed by Wes Anderson



I don't get people who criticise Wes Anderson for having a distinctive style.  Sure, his films are a continual process of refining one particular aesthetic, but it's a beautiful, precise aesthetic and anyway, it's not like there's anyone else that's doing anything remotely similar. But The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a breakthrough, the moment where narrative, performance, aesthetic, editing and sound all finally coalesce into one perfect whole.

The end result is a film that's pretty much distilled joy; every frame crammed with details that stack up like a house of cards, leaving you drunk on the clockwork, pop-up world that Anderson has poured his blood, sweat and tears into.  Also encouraging is that this is the first outright hit of Anderson's career, the mainstream and the arthouse coming together in mutual appreciation of something that's all too obviously goddamn amazing.

'Nymph()maniac Parts I & II' directed by Lars von Trier



It used to be the case that everytime I'd see a Lars von Trier film I'd leave the cinema having enjoyed myself, but vowing not to put myself through something so miserable again.Dancer in the Dark left me a miserable, quivering mess, Breaking the Waves had me staring in shocked disbelief and Antichrist?  Well let's just say that was a bad choice for a date movie. So when I sat down in the Brixton Ritzy to watch his two-part five hour fuckfest I had steeled myself for complete psychological warfare.

What I hadn't expected was that it'd be so damn funny.  Seriously, Nymphomaniac is sticky, gooey and oozes fluids all over the place, but it's got a surprisingly finely tuned sense of farce bubbling underneath.  Charlotte Gainsbourg latches on some screwed up sense of absurdity in the material and everyone else runs with it, making for a film that's genuinely fun to watch, even as it goes off on increasingly bizarre tangents.  I have a huge amount of respect for von Trier, an artist who's not afraid to piss everyone off, stick a middle-finger in the face of respectability and chuck a battering ram at boundaries.  Nymphomaniac is the work of a master provocateur, jabbing the audience right in their prim, repressed sensibilities.

WINNER

'Boyhood' directed by Richard Linklater


"No film like Boyhood has ever come to cinemas before.  No film like Boyhood will again."

I go to the cinema to experience new things.  All too often films try for this; be it with colossal sets, warehouses of computers crunching polygons, 3D imagery or just plain intense maximalism.  All usually fail, increasingly polished echoes of what I've already seen. Linklater's Boyhood beats them into submission, and it does it without oodles of cash or high technology.  Linklater's raw material is time, patience and artistic confidence. Boyhood's central premise, that it's filmed over 12 years with the same cast, is arguably a gimmick, but boy howdy what a gimmick.

Under the simple domestic surface lies infinite depths; time capsules of politics, fashion and culture, musings on the nature of family and personal development and a precisely observed set of emotions.  Godard famously said that cinema is truth 24-frames-per-second and this has rarely felt more accurate than here.  Allow yourself to get sucked into Linklater's world and you feel all kinds of unique feelings bubbling inside you: parental worries about the lead's development, reflection on your own development, empathy with your own parents and the disturbing sense that time is slipping through your fingers.

It's a titanic piece of film-making, all the more notable for the fact that this technique can only really be done once and never again.  But Linklater has given something to cinema history in Boyhood, something that can sent into the future to show future generations what life was really like for a brief, mixed-up couple of years in the early 21st Century. As soon as I walked out I knew could be no real competition for Boyhood to be my film of the year.

There's nothing else remotely like it.

23rd December: Gigs
24th December: Art
26th December: Theatre
27th December: Shittiest films.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

London City Nights Shittiest of 2014: Films

Saturday, December 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


My god do I see some shitty films.  Being a film critic isn't all free pizza, soapy titwanks from PR agents, open bars and big plates of complementary croissants (though it often very much is).  All too often you have to drag yourself at some ungodly hour to some frankly disgusting cinemas.  With the deserved death of the piss-stained, tramp-infested labyrinth that was the Trocadero Cineworld, the Holloway Road Odeon holds the current title, with its dim bulbs, 30 year old seats and worryingly squishy lumpen carpet.  These aren't necessarily the worst films I saw in 2014, but they were the shittiest times I had in a cinema:

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

'Begin Again' directed by John Carney 



As I noted in my review there's nothing technically that awful about Begin Again.  The principal cast does okay, the film is shot competently but unremarkably and for the most part it's inoffensive bilge.  But imagine the film as that apocryphal Halloween apple with a razor blade concealed inside; the mouth-shredding sadism here taking the form of Maroon 5's Adam Levine.  From the prickish tip of his stupid beard to his soppily warbling vocals to his lamely Dylan referencing waistcoat to his infuriatingly pointy shoes god I hate hate hate this man so so SO much.

And the film is saturated with both him and his limp-dick music!  Songs that sound like this. Worse, everyone in the film goes all gooey and doe-eyed behaving like he's the reincarnation of Woody goddamn Guthrie.  By the end of the film my eyes had narrowed to the thinnest of thin slits, my spine was curved like a cheesy quaver and my hands had turned into claws of hatred.  I wanted my stare to somehow burn a hole through the screen, through the film, back in time to when they were shooting it and explode this man's head.

'Mood Indigo' directed by Michel Gondry



Hah! Turns out I was way wrong in that quote.  It's dead easy to genuinely dislike Mood Indigo because it's a load of twee shite.  Cast your eyes upwards to that moronic picture above of an embarrassed looking Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris sitting in that stupid looking car.  What the hell is going on? Why does it have a cross on the side? Why are the wheels cross shaped? Variations on these questions fill every aspect of Mood Indigo, but the ultimate answer to them is that Michel Gondry needs someone to tap him on the shoulder and tell him that he's vanished up his own arse.

It's out of character for me to criticise a film for being overly imaginative, but it seems that panic set in early in this film's production and Gondry decided to fill the frame with whatever lol-monkey-cheese randomness that flitted through his head.  A useful point of comparison are the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, which also contain bagfuls of weirdness. But Jodorowsky's weirdness always has an intentional symbolic point, which he happily outlines in his DVD commentaries.  Gondry's tactic is to hope we're so distracted by all these whizzy gee-gaws that we'll not notice the film isn't shit.  Well we did. 

Gondry is an undoubtedly talented visual director, but this garbage marks the point where patience with his brand of kerrazy weirdness runs out.  I hated watching it, feeling my respect for him gradually shrivelling the longer the film went on.

'The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies' directed by Peter Jackson



Whereas the other shitty films this year invoked bitterness, hatred and anger; the bloated conclusion to Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy just left me feeling a bit sad.  I've been a fan of Peter Jackson since old times; his surrealistic low-budget punkish films like Brain Dead, Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles felt like they were made for teenage me.  Then in the 90s the double-bill of The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures cemented him as someone going places.  This made the Lord of the Rings trilogy feel like the inmates had been given control of the asylum, the epic and the personal beautifully fused together.  I ate up all those Extended Edition special features showing people piecing chain-mail together, getting off on the sheer care and craftsmanship that went into them.

So that the Hobbit films were so colossally shit felt like the dying of a dream.  With the release of the final portion they can definitively be described as bloated, tasteless, ugly and narratively malformed pieces of shit.  Peter Jackson has 'pulled a Lucas'; trying to recreate the magic of his classic works and in the process tainting them with shitty sequels.  Over the last three years I've spent about nine hours watching this series; I'd have had a more productive time doing just about anything else.

SHITTIEST

'Divergent' directed by Neil Burger



One thing I appreciate most in cinema is brevity.  For my money the ideal length for a movie is about 90 minutes.  Obviously there are a load of excellent fat-free two hour films, but the longer the run-time the greater the tendency to lapse into flabby incoherency.  Worse, there's a trend for longer and longer movies, figuring that length is roughly commensurate with epicness.  This finds its logical conclusion in Divergent, a goddamn atrocious YA novel adaptation that clocks in at an arse-numbing two and a half hours.

The film looks crap, the actors keep glancing off-frame (presumably towards their trailers) and it's suffused with a kind of plasticky Sci-Fi Channel original vibe.  I could feel my soul slowly leaking out of my shoes and sliding down the door.  With a kind of full-body numbness rapidly setting in, the only option my crazed main saw open to me was to take a pin from my bag and begin slowly poking holes in the skin of my arm.  It hurt like hell, but at least I wasn't going comatose.  So Divergent, a film that made me self harm is undoubtedly the shittiest thing I saw this year.

And there's a sequel coming out in February.  Oh joy.  

....better pack some gauze.

23rd December: Gigs
24th December: Art
26th December: Theatre
29th December: Best films

Friday, December 26, 2014

London City Nights Best of 2014: Theatre

Friday, December 26, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Whenever the big yearly theatre awards swing around I always a get a bit befuddled.  Half the plays nominated I've never even heard of, and the winners tend to be things I thought stunk up the place.  This is a symptom of living in a city with upwards of a hundred theatres, not just the big plastercast and chandelier glitz palaces of the West End, but the sweatboxes above pubs, tucked into the basements of shops and the very streets of London itself.  Once again I've seen an awful lot this year, but here's my favourites:

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

'The Picture of John Gray' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 8th August 2014



While watching The Picture of John Gray I assumed it was a revival of some unjustly forgotten classic. I was blown away when I later learned that this was the first staging of a new work by C.J. Willmann.  Emulating the cut and thrust conversations of late Victorian aesthetes is a tricky prospect, much less interweaving a genuinely touching love story and interrogation of hedonism versus Christianity.  That script, coupled with a confident cast and intelligent staging, made for a total triumph.  Best of it, it spurred me on to learn more about the people featured within, a gaggle of people with outstanding biographies.

'King Charles III' at the Wyndham's Theatre, 13th December 2014



That a play so virulently anti-monarchy can be released to wide acclaim in 2014 warms the cockles of my heart.  Merely voicing suspicions of the monarchy makes you feel like a social pariah, let alone advocating their safe, smooth but quick removal from power.  Their laminated, rubbery faces peer from the front of every magazine, every new familial development greeted with hushed deference from the media.  I shudder when I see the submissive masses furiously tugging their forelocks at the neverending cycle of weddings, jubilees and births. 

Yet in the midst of all this Mike Bartlett's King Charles III reminds us that a) these people are morons, b) they're a medieval anachronism and c) the Royal family are a potential political catastrophe.  I was all a-quiver with enjoyment from minute one until the curtain fell; a play that may as well have been made for me.

'Cans' at Theatre 503, 7th November 2014



One major advantage theatre has over other narrative forms is the intensification of emotions. Obviously it's possible to be moved by television and cinema, but when you have a living human being being put through the emotional wringer mere feet from you, their tears glistening under stage lights, it's so much more visceral.   This is further magnified when a playwright chooses to probe an open wound, in Cans' case the tendency of popular radio personalities to rape and abuse their way through their fans.

Stuart Slade even takes the difficult path through this subject, examining the limits of sympathy and empathy by showing us the impact of a destroyed reputation on the DJ's family members.  Both Jennifer Clement and Graham O'Mara knocked their roles out of the park.  A bold play that successfully picks its way through a figurative minefield.  My kinda stuff.

WINNER

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



Given my twin love of both Talking Heads and chunky dance beats, it is unsurprising that I dug Here Lies Love right down to its molten core.  This is a musical like few others, less a passive experience and more like you're attending the greatest party on earth.  The songs are upbeat, the costumes are dynamic and the performers simply sweat charisma.  The performance space roughly simulates being in a nightclub, the audience either looking down on the dancefloor or right in the midst of things being bumped by elbows and catching the eyes of the pretty person dancing next to you.  It's an intoxicating vibe.

Offsetting these good times is that Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos, an egomaniacal monster who exploited the peoples of the Philippines, living a life of luxury while the people starved.  But Byrne doesn't so much show us her life as try and seduce us into it, the show roughly emulating the amphetamine rush of living within a neverending party where anything flies.  It's equivalent to Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in condemning behaviour while showing it as enjoyable - but where Scorsese just lets us watch his wild parties, Byrne lets us dance, drink and lust away with Imelda.  It's ace and it's still on in the National.  If you dig cool theatre you've got to check it out!

23rd December: Gigs
24th December: Art
27th December: Shittiest films.
29th December: Best films

Thursday, December 25, 2014

'The Theory of Everything' (2014) directed by James Marsh

Thursday, December 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment


Will no one rid me of these troublesome biopics?!  After suffering through 2014's Jersey Boys, Jimi: All is By My Side, Get On Up, The Butler, The Imitation Game, The Invisible Woman, and Saving Mr Banks I am just about done with watching screenwriters trying to pop a neat thematic bow on top of the sumptuously packaged 'greatest hits' of some notable so and so.  So who's on the slate today?  Stephen Hawking?  Right, fine, whatever.  Roll the film.

The Theory of Everything charts Hawking's (Eddie Redmayne)'s relationship with Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones).  We begin in 1960s Cambridge, where we first meet the young physicist bouncing down the cobbled streets on a rickety bicycle.  With his goofy grin and oversize glasses he looks a little like Austin Powers' academic younger brother.  He soon proves to all that he's a genius physicist, and wins the heart and mind of the lovely Jane. Yup, looks like everything's going to work out beautifully for Stephen Hawking.

Then his body decides to eat itself.  Stricken with Motor Neurone Disease he's informed that his nervous system is going to shut down and in two years he's going to be dead.  Quite reasonably he holes himself up in his room, wraps himself in a blanket and feels exceedingly miserable for himself.  But  with the fragrant Jane for assistance he finds vast inner reserves of personal strength and decides he won't let this horrible disease stop him from living or completing his life's work. By and large you know the rest of the story; Hawking is a wonderful example of human fortitude to us all blah blah blah.


To be fair to the film there is some genuinely good stuff in here.  For a hungry young actor there can be few roles with Oscar-bait written all over them as much as Stephen Hawking. You get to play a witty man overcoming cruel fate, not to mention having to deal with  tricky performance limitations: first having to manage subtle facial tics, then being confined to a wheelchair and finally unable to speak or move altogether. Redmayne has clearly done his homework on Motor Neurone disease, effortlessly conveying the slow bodily horror of one portion of your body shutting down after another.  In the final scenes he's restricted to just a flicker of his eyes and a curl of his lip, but you can see the echoes of the lively 1960s Hawking in him.

The supporting cast are no slouches either.  Felicity Jones has to balance keeping the audience's sympathies while slowly falling out of love with Hawking, which she makes look deceptively easy.  This is especially impressive given that Jane Hawking is a curiously underwritten character, especially so given that this is an adaptation of her biography. David Thewlis is also a totally steady pair of hands as Hawking's professor, whose stern demeanour gradually melts into protective paternity as he recognises both Hawking's incredible intelligence and his personal bravery in dealing with his condition.

So why does this film suck?  It sucks because it presents Stephen Hawking's greatest achievement as overcoming his disability rather than his work in physics.  As far as Anthony McCarten's screenplay is concerned, Hawking may as well be a wizard for all the efforts it makes to understand what he does.  There's a moment early in the film that sums it up; Hawking and his classmates are given some 'impossible' equations to solve by Thewlis' professor.  Everybody is stunned into silence when it turns out Hawking has managed to 'only' solve 7 out of 8 of them.  It's impressed upon us that this is a huge feat but it falls flat as we have no context or explanation why this is impressive.  Look!  He's solved equations!  I mean, we don't know what equations they were but that doesn't matter right? What more proof do you need that he's smart?!

Similarly, when we see the blackboards full of complex formulae they're presented as an achievement in and of themselves, something that's apparently impressive purely because the characters are doing it.  As the film develops you slowly realise that there's going to be no real explanation of why Stephen Hawking is such a remarkable man, consequently there's the sense that the film is treating its audience like a big bunch of morons who only want to see a sappy sob-story-of-the-week terminal illness story.


There is some philosophical meat in the film, but it's a tired old debate between Christianity and science, a half-baked exploration of the confluence between high level physics and spirituality. This is tired ground that's been stomped into soupy mud by countless dramatic boots before it. Hawking's science might be beyond intuitive human understanding and perhaps difficult for mainstream audiences to wrap their heads around.  But then Hawking himself did it in his bestselling A Brief History of Time (which famously only contains a single equation: E=mc2).  Even within cinema, Errol Morris' fantastic documentary A Brief History of Time (1991) conveys Hawking's theories in crystal clarity (with a kickin' rad Philip Glass soundtrack).

The Theory of Everything, in its breathless quest to foreground the tragedy of Hawking's, ends up as emotional pornography.  "Oh, this poor man!" we end up thinking, sympathising with him as we greedily guzzle up his suffering.  For my money it's not even a great film about MND, certainly not a patch on the excellent but deeply disturbing documentary I Am Breathing, which chronicles the slow death of Neil Pratt from the disease.

Despite Redmayne's excellent performance and the general competence of the filmmaking The Theory of Everything is lobotomised, the grandeur of Hawking's discoveries reduced to fuzzy-wuzzy ponderings about faith. The film casually takes for granted that Hawking's science is too much for audiences.  It isn't.

★★

The Theory of Everything is released January 1st.

'The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death' (2015) directed by Tom Harper

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



In this review I will attempt to give you a rough simulation of just how annoying The Woman in Black 2 is.  Please turn the volume on your computer up to get the full experience.



The Woman in Black 2 is an impossibly naff, deeply dull horror film in which everyone involved puts in the bare minimum effort to collect a paycheque.  After the well-regarded The Woman in Black made fistfuls of money for the resurrected Hammer brand, I suppose a sequel was an inevitability.  A cash-in squirted into the dead zone of January cinema  doesn't inspire the highest cinematic hopes, but you never know, the series' loose mythology might allow some hungry young director to make a name for himself.

No such luck.  In this sequel, the time frame has moved on from Edwardian up to World War II.  Our heroine is Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), a kindly, sensitive young woman charged with the safety of a group of young evacuaees.  With the Blitz in full swing it's too dangerous for them to stay in London.  So the powers that be decide that the safest place to send these already traumatised children is Eel Marsh House, a dilapidated, mouldy ruin jampacked with hella creepy things in the middle of a tidal bog that's constantly wreathed with spooky fog.  Fair enough.


Yeah this place seems legit.
The previous inhabitant apparently had an fetish for eyeless china dolls, stern-looking paintings and broken children's toys.  There's even a mysteriously locked room that “nobody goes in”. Naturally there's also a angry ghost hiding out, whose supernatural powers appear to consist of primarily of screeching.  As the plot trundles along a crappy love story also springs up between our heroine and Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), a hunky yet tortured pilot who's stationed nearby.  



The basic ingredients of The Woman in Black 2 (angry ghost, good-hearted heroine, mysterious house, creepy kids) are about as familiar as you're likely to get in fiction. But that doesn't mean you can't slot them together into fascinating new configurations. Unfortunately The Woman in Black 2 does nothing fascinating, or even mildly interesting, settling for a mummified plot whose developments you can see coming a mile off.

Worse, it's not scary.  Don't get me wrong, you'll jump, but that's only because Tom Harper has decided to construct the film entirely around jump scares.  The thunking rhythm of the film basically goes like this.  Quiet bit... quiet bit... really quiet bit... *SCREEEEEAM!* Rinse and repeat that every 10 minutes and after 90 minutes you've apparently got yourself a horror flick.  The law of diminishing returns soon comes into effect.  The first jump scare jolts you out of your seat, but by the ninth you couldn't give less of a shit.  

Horror isn't often Oscar-bait, but there's a rigorous cinematic art in scaring the crap out of an audience, an art The Woman in Black 2 blithely ignores.  A good horror film should inspire some kind of existential dread.  The best horror directors realise this, mixing up a cocktail of fear from slow-burning ambience, exploiting common psychological worries, using subtly disorientating cinematography and, most of all, creating sympathetic characters

But Tom Harper is a one trick pony, his relentless hammering on the quiet bit/loud noise dynamic is annoying rather than scary.  Sure you can scare audiences like this, but it's baby's first horror technique.  By the time the credits roll The Woman in Black 2 has more in common with crappy YouTube scare memes than it does with its genre classics like The Shining, Repulsion or even The Bababook.


Spooky things should probably avoid cosy cardigans
None of this is helped by performances that, at best, border on acceptable. The only person to come out of this relatively unscathed is Phoebe Fox.  She plays her role with the steely determination of someone that's sure that buried somewhere in this dog of a script must lie something, anything dramatically worthwhile to latch onto.  She's wrong, but at least she's trying.  

Then again, perhaps Jeremy Irvine is also trying his best, though that is a low bar to clear.  Irvine is one of the few actors whose mere presence in a movie outright dismays me. There's something insincere behind those wooden eyes, as if he's some kind of Patrick Bateman-esque robot calculating the best way to appear human.  If The Woman in Black 2 can be said to have any worth, it's that Irvine's presence in a low-rent horror sequel may mark the beginning of a long downward spiral for him, hopefully meaning I'll soon never have to deal with him again.

 

If you've been following along with the multimedia aspects of this review you'll likely be deeply annoyed.  This annoyance is but a fraction of what you'd feel if you went to see The Woman in Black 2.  If Hammer continue sending rubbish like this into cinemas their resurrection will prove to be all too brief.


The Woman in Black 2 is released January 1st.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

London City Nights Best of 2014: Art

Wednesday, December 24, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


I've had a kickin' year in art.  Over the last 12 months I've performed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, at Institut für Alles Mögliche in Berlin and, my favourite, at Hackney WickED festival, where I made a political statement by being pelted with 150 eggs as a political statement.  That was the best artistic thing I did this year but it feels somehow egotistical to award myself top prize in my own contest.  So here's the tastiest fruits I discovered while out and about in London in 2014:

Honourable Mentions:

Live In Your Dreams!', The Crypt of St Pancras Church, 26th February 2014



I am not a difficult man to please.  Give me a subterranean labyrinth to wander about and I'm yours.  Even better if it's a spooky church crypt.  Even even better if it's jampacked full of interesting art.  I saw some great work by Central St. Martin's students this year, including some ace works by artists like Boris Raux, whose molecular art exploits damn near every sense; Charlotte Wendy Law, who reconfigures objects in fascinating new ways, drawing new materials from the ether; and Susan Beattie, who seems to find endless ways to utilise a piece of pig's gut. The sense of atmosphere and occasion here was outstanding, the pieces slotting beautifully into the musty space.

'The Choreography of Things', meeting Choy Ka Fai at arebyte Gallery, 18 January 2014



Give me something new to see or hear and I'll dance a jig of joy.  So when I was invited to meet Choy Ka Fai at arebyte Gallery, with the goa of being hooked up to shock pads and plugged into his mind control device I jumped at the chance.  He didn't disappoint.  As I noted at the time there's something of the mad scientist to him but maybe that's  inescapable when you write a programme ominously titled 'Mind Control Interface'.  When was hooked up to his device and the juice was flowing through me, the feeling of my arm jumping around and curling up was utterly alien - the experience of someone else's brainwaves manipulating my arm and giving me a taste of some disturbing future.  Check out the video.

'Dead Cat Bounce' by Alice Woods at Light Eye Mind, 14th November 2014



Any exhibition that leaves you feeling smarter than when you went in is worth a shake in my book.  Alice Woods' Dead Cat Bounce made the complex world of financial chicanery navigable by the layman (me).  Despite trying to keep abreast of what the hell is happening in the economy, there seem to be infinitely complex layers of jargon that, if I was a paranoid man, would seem suspiciously like they don't want people to understand it.  Woods busted through all that, representing this world with style and visual panache.  I particularly dug the chilling deck of cards that listed every part of the state that'd been privatised over the last 20 years, a piece that cements in the observer's mind just how much we've lost.

WINNER:

'Cornershop' by Lucy Sparrow, 26th August 2014



Having been running this site for a couple of years now, it's been deeply satisfying to meet artists contributing to group shows, being invited by them to see what they've been up to and finally see them gain some modicum of attention from the wider world.  After meeting Lucy in 2013 at the Whitecross Street festival, where she was exhibiting a felt portrait of Rose West (to mixed reactions from the public), I resolved to keep an eye on what she was heading towards

The pinnacle of these was Cornershop: an entire shop constructed from felt situated in the East End of London.  It was an eye-catching work, gaining attention from around the world and being featured in all major newspapers, on loads of art sites and all over social media. It's weird to see something you like being praised by The Daily Mail of all places, but, importantly, in gaining attention from the mainsteam media Lucy didn't sell out.  Lurking just beneath soft felt is razor-sharp satire and a keenly political eye.

I dug Cornershop so much a felt tube of K.Y. Jelly now sits proudly on top of my mantlepiece.  Can't wait to see what she does next.  

23rd December: Gigs
26th December: Theatre
27th December: Shittiest films.
29th December: Best films

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

London City Nights Best of 2014: Gigs

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


As shiny new 2015 hoves into view, I've got to admit I'm going to miss the ol' scuffed up, 2014.  I squeezed in an awful lot into 365 days, so with New Year approaching here's a few traditional 'Best of' lists. Today: gigs!  To come: albums, films, plays, art and maybe videogames.

Honourable Mentions: 

Eels at Royal Albert Hall, 30th June 2014



After a physically and mentally exhausting Glastonbury Festival the last thing I wanted to do was troop across London to see yet more live music.  But then Beautiful Freak was one of the first albums I ever owned and for many years Eels were my favourite band.  A couple of years of middling albums haven taken the shine off them, so I was there out of duty more than genuine passion.  But Mark Oliver Everett and company knocked me for six, reminding me precisely why younger me was so doolally over him.  The perfect way to get through the post festival blues.

'Miley Cyrus: Bangerz' at the o2 Arena, 6th May 2014



They laughed - laughed - at me for splashing out £50 on a Miley Cyrus ticket!  Joke's on them, she was one of the funnest/weirdest/bonkers things I saw all year.  Admittedly, a 30 year old man turning up alone to a Miley Cyrus gig isn't the greatest look, but I don't regret a single moment. Even leaving aside the bonkers cartoons and psychedelic cat projections, Bangerz is a goddamn excellent pop album, and hearing songs like Adore You, SMS Bangerz and 4x4 played at ear-splitting volume made me grin like an idiot.  Pop concert as sensory overload.

St Vincent at The Cambridge Junction, 19th August 2014



Well I didn't manage to score Kate Bush tickets (not for want of trying mind you), but Annie Clarke was probably the better gig. 2014 was the year St Vincent blossomed from 'merely' great into spectacular.  After knocking me dead at a festival gig over the summer I immediately got gig tickets to see her in Cambridge (her Roundhouse gigclashed with an ultimately disappointing Lady Gaga gig).  It was amazing, the kind of artist that turns her fans into evangelists and blows your mind clean out.  While she plays there may as well not be any other musicians in the world.  Annie Clarke is a class apart, a woman so talented you feel privileged to be spending time in the same room as her.

WINNER:

Dolly Parton at Glastonbury Festival, 29th June 2014



After 4 days and nights of non-stop partying, torrential rain and glue-like mud I thought I'd exhausted my brain's serotonin reserves.  Running on just a couple of hours sleep, Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury found me a numb zombie, barely able to lift a paper cup of beer to my mouth.  I am no real fan of Dolly Parton; but like most people I like 9 to 5, Jolene and so on, and figured as everyone was going I may as well go along too.

The very second she took to the stage it was like I learned how to experience emotion for the first time.  She sent waves of good vibes careening around the 100,000 strong crowd, sending us into a worshipful fervous.  It was powerfully amazing, leaving me astonished that, of all genres, country and western gave me a bigger buzz than all the mad-mental-crazy dance music that's my festival.  From then until the day I die, Dolly Parton will hold a very special place in my heart.  

Glastonbury was amazing, but she was the cherry on top of the cake.

24th December: Art
26th December: Theatre
27th December: Shittiest films.
29th December: Best films

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