Reviewed today: Abracadabra, From Jealous Dolls To Brutish Bulldogs, Jailbreak, Rift, Word Of God.
There's a point in this programme - fourteen films into a fifteen film collection of British animation - when I suddenly realise exactly when and where my interest in the form flourished. It was in that sweet spot in the early nineties where Channel 4 were funding and broadcasting huge numbers of animated shorts, at the same time as I was starting to regularly attend the LFF's annual collections of animations from the UK and the world. At one point, I was regularly taping all of C4's animation broadcasts for my own personal collection. I only remember this now because I'm watching Ged Haney's The Kings Of Siam, made in 1992, and realising I know most of the words to the closing song by heart. Tomorrow is just around the corner, lurking in the shadows with a baseball bat...
Jez Stewart - who it appears now looks after archive animation at the BFI, to answer yesterday's question - has been putting together three programmes of British animated shorts from the whole of the twentieth century, which will be going out to cinemas some time in 2018: From Jealous Dolls To Brutish Bulldogs is a taster compilation of the best bits from them. The aim is to create, as the subtitle says, 'a new history of British animation,' and the changes in styles and themes over the decades are fabulous to see: if there's one flaw in this particular collection, it's that it would be nice to get an onscreen date stamp for every short, seeing as they've gone to the trouble to arrange them in chronological order.
Percy Stow's Jealous Doll makes for a splendid opener - even though it was made in 1909, it tells a coherent and entertaining story, and takes on the challenge of mixing live action and animation (although these days there's additional fun in spotting the cheats Stow used to save himself work). The subsequent early shorts tend to go one way or the other - either experimenting with the form (Toytown Circus' unexpected use of colour in 1912, or Len Lye's stop-motion Experimental Animation 1933), or using traditional methods to make people laugh (Dudley Buxton's Ever Been Had? or the uncredited Booster Bonzo).
In this programme, we hit a turning point with Gross and Hoppin's Fox Hunt in 1936 - animated in a beautifully balletic style with plenty of comedy, although a modern viewer is kept on edge worrying that a film from this period might end up with the death of the fox. We then leap to the post-war period, and the balance of style and content continues with Halas & Batchelor's The Figurehead and an unexpected booze commercial from Ronald Searle (Parents Take Hart).
It's all very classically styled up to this point, which makes the appearance of Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit in 1959 feel like punk rock. Bob Godfrey and collaborators bridge the gap between the Goons and Monty Python, with surreal narration from Michael Bentine recalling the former, and the cut-out style of the visuals anticipating the latter (if not downright influencing Terry Gilliam's work directly). From then on, things get looser and more personal: Charlie Jenkins' psychedelic Transformer, Alison de Vere's charming Mr Pascal, Jonathan Hodgson's impressionistic Nightclub and Osbert Parker's joyful Clothes.
The programme wraps up with two films from that Channel 4 era I have all the tapes for: the aforementioned Kings Of Siam, and Joanna Quinn's Brexit-parable-before-its-time Britannia, made in 1993. And then we stop: one of the animators brought on for a far-too-short Q&A at the end suggests that the internet, and the collaboration it allows for, means that it's harder to identify animations as being particularly British any more. Which may explain why the LFF doesn't do those collections of new animation I loved so much in the nineties and noughties, but in the meantime, archive collections of this quality will do very nicely, thanks.
3.15pm: Word Of God [official site]
Søren Malling is God. More accurately, he's playing Uffe, the head of a family that's all expected to treat him like one. He's got a Swedish wife, and three sons that are rebelling against him in a variety of ways: religion, poetry, masturbation, the usual. He's also got terminal cancer. He doesn't believe that either God (the real one) or medicine will save him, so instead he decides to spend his final six months writing the story of his life. Calling it Mein Kampf is probably an indication of how much he cares if other people read it.
A couple of years ago, Malling was one of the leads in the gloriously freaky Men And Chicken, which for me was the apotheosis of Danish humour - surreal, pitch black, unafraid to go into areas where other national cinemas would fear to tread. The LFF programme sells Word Of God as being in the same tradition, reducing the plot to a series of shock moments that it then proceeds to list one by one. Sure, all of those terrible things are in the movie, and you can see why they promoted it that way - it got me into the cinema, after all. But it's much more interesting than a simple cavalcade of amusing atrocities.
A lot of this is presumably down to the source material - Jens Blendstrup's autobiographical novel, adapted here by Bo Hr. Hansen and director Henrik Ruben Genz. It would have been so easy for Blendstrup to portray his father as a bleak caricature, but he does something a lot more complex with the character, and gives Malling some glorious material to work with. Uffe looks like your stereotypical grumpy old man from the outside, but we can see that all of his decisions throughout the film turn out to be more or less reasonable given the circumstances: it's other people's reaction to them that causes problems. As a result, we're totally on his side: we're waiting for the one provocation in the wedding reception scene that will push him hilariously over the edge and make him go nuts, but we're also cheering him on when he does that.
It's very rare that you can accuse a Danish comedy film of having a heart, but Word Of God has an enormous one, and it balances out all of the darker comic elements to result in something rather unique.
6.15pm: Abracadabra [trailer]
I didn't see Pablo Berger's previous film Blancanieves at the LFF in 2012, but I did catch it at a proper cinema the following year. As I'm settling down to see his new one Abracadabra, it suddenly strikes me that I can't really remember what I thought about Blancanieves at the time: could this be The Seafood Fallacy all over again? You'll be glad to hear that I went back and checked, and it turns out I really liked it, although to be honest 'better than The Artist' seems like damning with faint praise to me.
Berger's followup also turns out to be great, although it differs from its predecessor in every possible way - it's colourful, crammed with dialogue, and (at least to start off with) firmly grounded in contemporary reality. At its core is a family of three - father Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), mother Carmen (Maribel Verdú) and daughter Toñi (Priscilla Delgado) living unhappily together in Madrid. Matters come to a head when the three of them attend a wedding which unfortunately coincides with a football match Carlos is desperate to watch. Later on, at the reception, Carlos takes part in a bit of stage hypnotism which has an unexpected result: from time to time, he becomes possessed by the spirit of a kinder gentler man who'll even do the housework. That's a definite improvement on what Carmen used to expect. Isn't it?
In the Q&A afterwards, Berger insists that he wants his films to surprise the viewer. Well, there's no denying that he does that: Carlos' possession is merely the first in a series of whiplash twists that this movie will go through before it wraps up. In just over an hour and a half, the film goes through multiple changes of genre, but Berger's light touch and wicked sense of humour ensures that none of them ever feels forced or gimmicky. Maribel Verdú's Carmen is the thread that ties all of the disparate narrative elements together, and it's her grounded lead performance that keeps you hooked all the way through. Add to that some inventive photography and splendid use of music, and you've got a film that's a joy to watch.
9.00pm: Jailbreak [official Facebook]
Unusually, Jailbreak gets a guest speaker at the start of this screening, but not at the end. But is that unusual, or suspicious? Lead actor Jean Paul Ly uses his introduction to confirm the reason why most of us in the audience are here - we're about to watch the Cambodian film industry's first ever attempt at an action movie. But then he goes deeper into the implications of what that means. If a country's never made an action movie before, they don't have a pool of stuntmen to draw on: Ly had worked on stunts in other countries in the past, so part of his job on this film required him to train up a stunt team from scratch in just a few weeks. Then they brought on a director who liked filming his fight scenes in long unbroken takes, and getting freshly-trained stunt people to work in those circumstances proved to be another challenge... As Ly goes through all the problems the film encountered, it feels less like a series of fun on-set anecdotes, and more of a plea to the audience to be nice to Cambodia as they've never done this before.
The good news is, the film doesn't really need that nervous introduction, it can survive quite nicely on its own thank you. At the beginning, crime boss Playboy has just been arrested, and is planning to spill the beans on his collaborators to reduce his sentence. This obviously puts him in danger, so for his own protection he's transferred to Prei Klaa maximum security prison by a team of four cops, including the police equivalent of a visiting French exchange student (Ly). But this isn't going to stop all-girl crime gang The Butterflies, who put a plan into operation to have Playboy silenced once and for all.
The only area where we really need to cut Jailbreak some slack is in the ludicrous treatment of The Butterflies themselves, a collection of hot babes in black leather jumpsuits frequently filmed from behind. Having said that, this isn't specifically a problem with the treatment of female characters - the one woman in the team of cops gets just as stuck into the fights as the others, and the leader of The Butterflies (Céline Tran) is a terrific character in her own right. In fact, a wee gag in the end credits out-takes suggests that the sexist depiction of the girl gang just might be some cheeky self-aware humour. There are several points in the script where genre conventions are broadly sent up - my favourite is a monstrous criminal known as The Cannibal, who's impervious to kicks to the groin because "he got so hungry once he ate his own balls."
The gags are certainly welcome, but we're really here for the fights, and for the most part they deliver. My one concern is that in the first half of the film, a lot of the scraps are a little bit samey - the first time you see the four cops plus a warden take on several dozen rioting convicts in a single take, it's magnificent, but the effect wears off the next few times they do it. There's no real sense of escalation - at one point, they're forced to have a cop declare "oh, no, we're outnumbered" because there are only three of them fighting fifty baddies, rather than the usual five. Still, once we get to the climax we have three one-on-one boss battles taking place at the same time, and they work magnificently.
We also get the added bonus of many of the cast using the previously-unfilmed Cambodian martial art of Bokator - the film's at pains to make that quite clear to an international audience in the dialogue - and so we get to watch quite a few moves we haven't seen on screen before. All of this is warmly appreciated by the audience at the Prince Charles, which winces and cheers in all the right places, as Prince Charles audiences always do. Jailbreak, with a couple of tiny reservations, is one hell of an achievement for a country's first action film: now let's see what the second one looks like.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Rift [official site]
The Belated Birthday Girl - There can be a number of different reasons I choose to see any particular film at the LFF. Sometimes it’s a film I knew about and already wanted to see. Other times it’s the director, or the actors. Or it can be the theme of the film, the subject or story in the brief program synopsis. But often it’s the picture accompanying that synopsis, and in the case of Rift, it was the striking image of a young man, set against the stark Icelandic landscape, that attracted me to it. I am sure that I then read the synopsis and was also intrigued by the premise, but one of the advantages of selecting a large-ish number of films to see quite quickly is that I then pretty much forget what I read about a lot of the films, and that was the case here: apart from the fact that it was Icelandic, I didn’t remember anything about the film I was about to see.
Writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen, who attended the screening, said he didn’t want to say much about it before we’d seen it, because it was a film you should see cold: and I’d even say that Michael Blyth’s brief introduction said a little more than I’d have liked, even though he gave away nothing specific at all.
The little I am prepared to reveal myself is that the film centres on Gunnar and Einar, who have recently ended their relationship, and takes place in the wintertime at a remote Icelandic summer house, where Gunnar goes to find Einar following a disturbing phone call from him. That stark Icelandic scenery of lava fields and glaciers, which attracted me to the film in the first place, not only gives it a haunting atmosphere but is central to the story, making this a very specifically Icelandic film. There are strong performances from the two leads, which bring an emotional pull, and the subtle, multi-layered plot keeps the audience thinking all the way to the end, and probably after, too: it’s a film that could reward repeat viewings.
Like some other of the best films seen so far at this year’s festival, Rift invites us to draw our own conclusions about what we are seeing. There is one last screening of this in the festival at 12:15 on Sunday 8th, so if you are reading this before then, you still have the chance to fit it in. If not, then if it gets picked up in any way and the chance comes around again, I’d certainly recommend seeing it. And I’d also recommend finding out no more about it before you do.