Reviewed today: Another Round, Bad Tales, LFF Expanded, One Man And His Shoes.
10.30am: One Man and His Shoes [official site]
The one time anyone's ever complimented me on my choice of training shoes was just before they shoved a camera up my bottom. I was getting ready for a scheduled medical examination, and the nurse was obviously trying to make conversation to take my mind off what was about to happen. She noticed the Vegetarian Shoes logo on the trainers I'd just removed, and asked me what that was all about. I explained that they were an ethical business based out of Brighton, which specialised in footwear made out of non-leather materials. "Oh, that's nice," she said, and then shoved a camera up my bottom anyway.
So no, I don't think I count as one of those 'sneaker enthusiasts' who are the potential target audience for Yemi Bamiro's documentary about the rise of Air Jordans. Back in the early eighties, sportswear endorsement wasn't that big a business, and Nike wasn't one of its major players. The turning point came when one of their executives realised they needed a major black athlete on board to sell basketball shoes to the urban market, and bet the farm on an up-and-coming young player called Michael Jordan. Jordan wore the black-and-red prototype version of the shoes that bore his name on the court, until the NBA banned them for being the wrong colours: then Nike put them on general sale, with the subtle hint that they'd really been banned because they gave Jordan an unfair advantage.
Bamiro's film is brilliantly constructed, overflowing with energy for its first hour or so. It starts as a celebration of eighties pop culture, showing how Jordans hit the streets around the time that black celebrities were becoming the mainstream. Canny campaigns like the run of ads involving Spike Lee opened up the appeal of Air Jordans to the whole of America. Michael Jordan himself became the first black man to have a product range attached to his surname like Kellogg and Ford. We see how this is the story of not just how black people became marketable, but marketable at.
And then the third act quietly segues in, showing how high prices and deliberately restricted stock numbers gradually complicated people's relationship with the shoes: from the obsessive collectors, to the darker side of where that supply/demand equation eventually leads. It's a wonderfully handled bait and switch, but the undercurrent of unease with Nike's marketing policy is present in the film from the word go, so you never feel you've been cheated. This is Bamiro's first feature after several short films, and I'd be keen to see more of his work after this.
As Rainier Wolfcastle once said, the goggles do nothing. You'll recall that last Friday, The BBG and I attempted to use our Google Cardboard VR headset to watch some of the LFF's 360 content at home, only to find the site virtually - ha! - impossible to navigate. Well, the good news is that they've fixed the navigation so that all the videos are now directly reachable from a YouTube playlist. The bad news is that we have currently have three mobile phones in operation at Château Belated-Monkey, and none of them work with the goggles. The first one is a Blackberry with the wrong shaped screen, the second is missing the internal gyroscope required to make any VR application effective, and the third is an iPhone whose recent upgrade to iOS 14 apparently now makes it incompatible with Cardboard apps. Does this mean I've wasted three quid on the goggles? I'll let you know one way or the other in a couple of days.
In the meantime, if we can't watch this content at home, we'll have to go out to do it instead. So it's off to BFI Southbank for our penultimate visit of this festival, where they've got half a dozen or so VR headsets available for use, and a series of free bookable 60 minute sessions available. You get a headset and headphones to put on, which makes for a slightly awkward combo with the mandatory facemask. After a quick introduction to the two handheld controls, you're off. The interface to all the VR content is The Expanse, the virtual exhibition hall that annoyed me so much when we tried to use it on a PC last week. It's a little easier to get around using the controls supplied here, but it's still clunky as hell, and crashes twice during my hour-long session. Sometimes all people really want to see is a menu with a big button labelled Click Here To Hear Abel Ferrara Swearing, and so on.
I get to see two pieces all the way through, two partially, and one that's open-ended so who knows how much of that I experienced. François Vautier's Odyssey 1.4.9 [trailer] makes for a great introduction, giving you the maximum amount of visual impact for the minimum amount of input on your part: it lets you look around inside a huge architectural edifice built up entirely of frames from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The trailer gives you a vague idea of how trippy it's going to look, but doesn't prepare you for the sheer gargantuan scale of it. Anything you watch immediately after this is going to be a disappointment, and in my case it's Harry Silverlock and Montague Fitzgerald's Gimme One [YouTube 360 version], a 360 documentary about the UK vogueing scene. I accidentally drop out of it after a couple of minutes, but by then I'm not too fussed about trying to get back in - the YouTube link lets you see the film in a version you can scroll around by hand, and being able to view these images hands-free doesn't seem that important. What I saw of Gimme One was little more than the recreation of a three-wall projection in a gallery installation, and I'm looking for something a little more flashy than that.
I certainly get it with Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson's DAZZLE: SOLO [trailer], probably the most interactive of my selections here. It's a piece that you navigate through rather than watch, putting you in the middle of a dance performance where all the performers have been digitally replaced by patterns reminiscent of the old dazzle ships. There's a whole series of button sequences you can press to teleport between different scenes, or change your viewing angle. Unfortunately, without an onscreen key to the controls it's impossible to remember which is which, so I'm reduced to randomly mashing buttons with my thumb like I used to do on my first PlayStation. I admit it's during one of these button-mashing sessions that I experience my worst system crash, but I'm reasonably certain it isn't my fault.
After an obliging LFF staffer has rebooted my system, the second full-length piece I catch here is Alyssa T. Mello's Eldfell [trailer], the story of a 1973 Icelandic volcano eruption. It sounds like a terrific thing to get yourself immersed in, but in reality you get a few fuzzy bits of film of the eruption padded out to your full field of vision with 3D motion graphics. There are a couple of fun interactive tricks, like the ability to swat volcanic ash away with your hands, but they don't really add much to the experience. Finally I get to watch about half of Clément Deneux's Missing Pictures: Birds Of Prey [trailer] before my time runs out. Again, it's largely 360 motion graphics, this time illustrating Abel Ferrara's pitch for an unmade movie. He's in the middle of describing a 'beautiful torture scene' when they pull the plug and I'm ejected from the building.
It all makes for an interesting hour, but it has to be said the technology's really not ready for prime time. It's surprising to discover that the majority of these presentations make you wait for ten seconds or so at the end of every scene while they load up the next one - that used to be the case in my old PlayStation button-mashing days, and I'd assumed we'd be past that by now. When you've got a limited amount of time to play with, having to spend most of it clumping around The Expanse to locate a specific bit of content isn't as much fun as they think it is. And at the end of all this, only two of the five pieces I watched here - Odyssey 1.4.9 and DAZZLE: SOLO - really push at the boundaries of what can be achieved. I wouldn't say the goggles do nothing, but I think it'll take a few more years to find out what they can do.
5.35pm: Another Round [trailer]
The BBG and I continue with our commitment to immersive cinema by going to the Waterloo Tap for a quick pint before our final BFI Southbank film of this festival, the one we've been referring to between ourselves as Mads On The Piss. It stars Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe as four teachers at a school in the months leading up to exams. During a night on the town, one of them mentions a Norwegian study which found that human beings are generally operating at too low a blood alcohol level: taking it up to 0.05% will improve their performance in almost every way. As educators, they have no alternative but to put this to the test experimentally, with a series of bottles hidden around the school and a personal breathalyser each. Does that 0.05% really make such a difference? How about a bit more, then?
Another Round is the ninth film I've watched theatrically since the easing of the lockdown - okay, for future historians, let's say the easing of the first lockdown. Those films included big old crowdpleasers like Bill And Ted Face The Music and Tenet (okay, maybe not so much with Tenet): but I've got to tell you, this is the first one I've seen in ages where I've felt part of a proper audience, all laughing, gasping and reacting along with the events on screen. That's the last thing I would have expected to say about a film by Thomas Vinterberg, a director I've always associated with chilly detached studies of human nature. Having said that, I've just checked and I apparently haven't seen a movie of his since 2003, so maybe he doesn't deserve that.
Whatever: this is a delightfully warm cinematic experience, or at least what passes for a delightfully warm cinematic experience in Denmark. On the way out, I heard a woman in front of us say 'I'm not really sure what the message of the film was,' and that's exactly how Danish it is: it sustains a blissfully sardonic comic tone which leaves you perpetually uncertain whether you should be laughing or being appalled. (Do both, it's probably safest.) Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm's script is a perfectly balanced thing, and the cast give it their all - especially Mikkelsen, in a final scene that brings back memories of that time I was in Scandinavia myself at the end of a school year (Sweden, in that case), and saw how depraved things can get. It might just be an accident of timing, but I think the audience reaction to Another Round may well push it high up my list of favourites so far.
8.30pm: Bad Tales [trailer]
It's become a long-standing tradition at our London Film Festivals that late in the run we'll get an appearance from Adrian Wootton, introducing one of the Italian films that he loves so much. He may have had to do it virtually, but he's done it again this year, hosting the introduction and the Q&A for this feature by the brothers Fabio and Damiano D'Innocenzo. Wootton is the only former LFF artistic director I know of who's stayed involved with the festival after leaving the post, and it's always a delight to see him again.
Bad Tales is hard to classify: the programme notes have it down as a fairy tale, which is what people tend to call things when they've run out of more concrete comparisons. It's certainly a film that runs on moral extremes like a fairy tale would, even given its present-day suburban Italian setting. On one side you've got the grown-ups, notably the fathers: violent, sleazy and totally unsupportive of their kids. On the other you've got the children: trying to make their way through life, struggling to cope with the usual urges, and experimenting with explosives. In more ways than one, After This Summer Things Will Never Be The Same Again.
It's difficult to get a handle on this film as its tone is so wayward, a consequence of most of it being made up of short, disconnected episodes. The characters are the only connecting tissue between those episodes, and they don't appear to develop at all as a result of what happens to them: everyone's trapped in their own personal rut. When something approaching a plot starts kicking in about three-quarters of the way through, it comes as a genuine surprise, as there hasn't been any real preparation for it. But that last quarter of the film is astonishing, taking the story in an extraordinarily bold direction. When you think you've got the message that the environment these kids have grown up in is a toxic one, the D'Innocenzos throw in a coda that suggests there's a much wider problem with the whole of Italy, if not beyond. It makes for a somewhat bleak end to a festival day, but there's no denying it's a memorable one.