Reviewed today: The Cloud Messenger, Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande, The Menu, Short Film Competition part 1.
11.15am: Short Film Competition part 1 [link to all shorts until October 23rd]
There’s still a hefty online component to this year’s LFF, though not as much as in the last two years. By the time you read this, several of the films from this year’s fest will be available to rent on the BFI Player for a reasonable eight quid, and will be available until October 23rd. Of the ones I’ve reviewed here, you’ll be able to see The Cloud Messenger (see below), God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, Crows Are White, Hidden Letters and Chee$e, but feel free to check out any of the others I haven’t seen.
You can also view about three hours worth of short films, the ten that are currently eligible for the Short Film Competition award. Initially, we consider picking out a few from that shortlist and just watching those, but that feels like a mistake: part of the joy of shorts is having a programme full of them and just stumbling across one in there you like by accident. So we decide to work through all the films in the order they’re presented on the BFI Player, stopping after about 90 minutes and picking up on the rest tomorrow.
This means that we start off with Ade Femzo’s Drop Out [official site], made as part of John Boyega's Create Next project supporting young Black filmmakers. Femzo himself takes the lead role as a young man who’s got to choose between university and his rap career, and then faces the more difficult task of selling his decision to his mum. It’s more of a sketch then anything else, and you feel it’s all over far too quickly, but that’s probably a good thing for a comic short. Particularly in the programme we’ve come up with, where the remaining films all go over the 20 minute mark.
There’s a curious overlap between the next two. Ary Zara’s An Avocado Pit [official site] tells the story of a trans woman who approaches a man who’s been watching her from his car, and effectively nags him into a night out. There’s a nicely dreamy atmosphere to the night-time shots of Lisbon, as the two of them dance around the subject of what they’re looking for without really coming to any conclusions. And we follow that up with Dennis Perinango’s Checoslovaquia [official site], which again starts off with a man spying on some trans women, only to discover that his new colleague at work shares his hobby, meaning that the two of them now have to justify it to each other. The story here goes into slightly more familiar terrain, but rounds itself off quite nicely.
After that double bill, you’re suspicious when the final film in the set is called Transparent [official site], but there’s no real pun intended here – though at one point its subject says she sometimes imagines herself in the body of a man. That subject is dancer Siobhan Davies, and she’s made this film to look back on her 50 year career. It’s actually three distinct shorts in one, hence the 35 minute running time. The first is made up entirely of still images, as she analyses the way she thinks about her body in incredible detail: the second focusses on movement, tied around the image of four dancers walking in concentric circles: and in the last, she uses the device of transparencies on a lightbox to overlay images from the whole gamut of her 50 years. The picture-in-picture look is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s early ‘90s experiments in image manipulation, and coupled with Davies’ insights the result is an interesting watch, though dance fans will get even more out of it. More tomorrow.
3.00pm: The Cloud Messenger [trailer]
Rahat Mahajan's film is a lot of things. To begin with, it's a romance between Jaivardhana (Ritvik Tyagi) and Tarini (Ahalya Shetty), who are both yakshas or attendants to the gods. Unfortunately, one of those gods fancies Tarini, and condemns Jaivardhana to life as a mortal to get him out of the way. Meanwhile, in a wholly unrelated matter, JV is an awkward teenage boy at the sort of Indian boarding school where everyone speaks English, and he’s developing a crush on new girl Tarini.
I hate that I'm probably going to say this about every new Indian film I see for the next couple of years, but here goes: it’s no RRR, is it? Though to be fair to the festival, whenever they bring over films from India they tend to avoid the more commercial end of the country's output. The Cloud Messenger isn't exactly arthouse, but its pacing is incredibly slow, and deliberately so. The sung narration is spread out over as many bars as possible, and some of the characters grind through their lines as if they’re being paid by the minute. You sometimes feel that a film that’s largely about how human lives are driven by fate shouldn’t take this long to tell its story.
Still, there’s a lot to like about the film. I assumed all along that knowing the mythology behind these characters would be an advantage, so it's a surprise to learn at the post-film Q&A that Mahajan's made up the story of Jaivardhana and Tarini entirely out of his own head. And one of the things the film does brilliantly is showcase a number of different Indian performance styles to tell the various layers of its story, which means there are some spectacular costumes to be seen. It's certainly one of a kind, and I'm prepared to accept that the reason why I'm not more positive about it is that I wasn’t quite in the mood at the time for something that slow.
6.15pm: Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande [official Twitter]
There's a long and delightful history of LFF programmers breaking protocol when introducing music documentaries, and saying we’re about to see the best film in in the festival: it happens again tonight. This one is about Cymande, a band from South London formed in the early 1970s by half a dozen kids, all direct descendants from the Windrush generation (the cue for a few painful clips from the period featuring interviews with racist twats). Against this background, they made funk music that commented lyrically on what was going on around them. They did pretty well in America – they made the charts and played big gigs supporting the likes of Marvin Gaye. But the lack of media coverage for Black British music meant they remained unknown back home, so after four years and three albums they called it a day.
And this is where the story really starts. Over in the US, the kids of those original Cymande fans picked up on the band's rock-solid grooves, and started using them in DJ sets. One particular tune - Bra, featuring an outrageous bass and drums break in the middle - became one of the earliest records where DJs used two copies of the record and a cross-fader to stretch out the good bit for several minutes at a time. Gradually, Cymande samples started turning up on more and more hip-hop records - a montage here shows you the ridiculous number of tracks that have used Bra's bassline in some form or other without you noticing. And the people using these samples started digging around to find out more about this band, not realising that these days its members were anonymous session musicians or working as lawyers.
I was grumbling about God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines the other day, because it was a music doc that didn't really have a story. Make no mistake, Tim Mackenzie-Smith's film has one: it's a full-blown three act drama, and you spend most of its running time hoping that it gets the third act it deserves. It has to rely a lot on stock footage on the early stages – I’m certain that at one point it establishes the move to New York with the same shot of kids playing with a fire hydrant they used in GSGEDM - and to start off with it's very much a standard study of the rise and fall of a band, with the complication that it was a band that rarely got filmed. But it’s the stuff that came after the split that makes this so fascinating, as it shows how music can have a life way beyond that intended by its creators.
The band members are all great as interviewees, both in terms of their memories of their career and their surprise at the renewed interest in their music. But there are also terrific contributions by the huge number of people claiming them as an influence: from Norman Jay playing their tunes as part of his rare groove revival, via Prince Paul sampling them for that first De La Soul album that you can’t buy any more because of all the samples, up to Loyle Carner hoping they’ll also be an inspiration to the generation after him. Getting It Back is an astonishing story told with a ridiculous amount of love, and like all the best music docs it makes you want to listen to the music played loud. I’ll get back to you about that.
9.00pm: Surprise Film: The Menu [official Facebook]
This will, I guess, be Tricia Tuttle’s last surprise film. Let’s look at her record so far. 2018: Green Book. 2019: Uncut Gems. 2020: no surprise film because of a global pandemic. 2021: C'Mon C’Mon. Personal opinion, but I think the best of those years was 2020 (with 2019 as a reluctant second place, though I didn’t see it in the surprise film slot). Sometimes I wonder why I keep coming to these things.
And the answer is, every so often you get a night like this. My guess for tonight was Confess, Fletch: other people were looking at the top picks coming out of the Venice festival and suggesting Tar (although I think they have to warn people if the surprise film is going to be so long that people miss their last train home). When Michael Blyth comes on stage to ask the audience for their suggestions (running scared, Tricia?), the people to one side of us are all yelling for The Menu, so at least they're happy. As am I: surprise films are always the most interesting when they're ones that you know literally nothing about in advance, as is the case here.
Mark Mylod's film is set in an ultra-fancy restaurant, located on an island that can only be reached by the restaurant's own ferryboat. It takes a maximum of a dozen or so diners a night; we're initially introduced to just two of them, young couple Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), but we'll get to meet the rest of them in time. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is in charge of the kitchen, which means that only people who can afford to pay a couple of grand for a dinner will ever see the inside of it. But as one of the diners suggests, you pay for the experience. They’re not wrong.
What we've got here is a caustic satire on high-end restaurants and the people who can afford to eat there: we get to enjoy the ridiculous conceptual ideas behind Slowik's dishes, and the hilarious reactions of the diners to them. It's not an especially subtle satire: the script is by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, who both work for The Onion, a publication that knows you have to go in hard when you need to. This means there are some tricky switches in tone as the film goes on, but Mylod negotiates them as confidently as he does when he's working on Succession. (There's potentially a thesis to be written on the trajectory of Mylod's directing career, which started out thirty years ago on the likes of The Fast Show and Shooting Stars.) It's terrific to see Ralph Fiennes having fun on screen again, and the rest of the cast back him up brilliantly. As a surprise film, it's an unabashed crowdpleaser: as a film programmed by someone who wants to finish their time in a job with a grand gesture, this one's pretty much ideal.