Spank's LFF Diary, Saturday 07/10/2023
Spank's LFF Diary, Monday 09/10/2023

Spank's LFF Diary, Sunday 08/10/2023

Reviewed today: The Boy And The Heron, Ferrari, Robot Dreams, Screen Talk: Greta Gerwig.

Robot Dreams12:00pm: Robot Dreams [trailer]

In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of free stuff added to the LFF programme. Aside from online shorts screenings – more on those soon - there are art events, Pitchblack Playback sessions like the Cymande one we did last year, talks, and so much more. For example, last night The BBG and I had a fun hour in the BFI Southbank bar, bopping around to DJ Cano playing Dominican-influenced tunes, in the world's least likely tie-in with Croma Kid. (Basically, he played lots of stuff you already know, but with a dunnnnn-ka dun ka beat grafted over the top.) And this morning, we walk into BFI Southbank a little before the screening of Robot Dreams to find a whole bunch of kids in the foyer building their own robots out of scraps from the BFI recycling bins.

Robot Dreams is set in New York in the 1990s – the obvious signifier of that time and place is so front and centre in the establishing shots that I spent the whole film nervously waiting for the moment where we jump forward to 2001. Happily, it's not that sort of film: we're in a cartoon New York inhabited entirely by animals, and our hero is a dog called Dog. (Another square crossed off on our Generically Named Characters bingo card.) Dog lives alone and feels a bit sad about that, so he buys a robot to be his friend. It works out really well, and we spend the best part of ten minutes just watching them have a lovely time together. Something’s got to go wrong eventually, and it happens during a day out at the beach.

This is a first stab at animation by Pablo Berger, best known for live-action, vaguely fantastical films like Blancanieves and Abracadabra. From the former, he's taken the approach of telling the story with zero dialogue: from the latter, he's reused the idea that one perfectly chosen song can ground a surreal story in reality. It's a joy to look at, taking its key design cues from Sara Varon's source graphic novel, but then filling it out to ensure that virtually every shot has a gag or surprising bit of detail hiding in it. (One of my favourite details: Dog and the robot rent The Wizard Of Oz one night, and you spend so much time focusing on the obvious presence of the Tin Man that you could easily miss that the tape’s on hire from NY legend Kim’s Video.) For a film without a single word spoken, it's also got some complicated things to say about the nature of friendship and how it changes over time. All these elements combine into a proper family movie, whose more adult aspects are carefully pitched so that they don’t make the kids feel left out. If anything, we felt left out because we didn't get to make a robot.

The Boy And The Heron2.45pm: The Boy And The Heron [trailer

I’ve already mentioned the LFF programme booklet and how it’s changed size from A4 to A5 this year. Does it matter? Maybe not – most people would rather be viewing the film listings online than on paper, although I know that a couple of Spank’s older Pals would disagree. But it’s worth noting that on the day the booklet was published, it was accompanied by a huge webpage listing all the places where the booklet was wrong – simple typos, or late reschedulings, or movies that they only picked up after the programme went to press. So if you relied totally on the booklet, you simply wouldn’t be aware that the UK premiere of Hayao Miyazaki’s new film was happening today.

The theory was that Miyazaki was going to retire after The Wind Rises ten years ago, but it looks like he’s one of those people who can’t quite quit. His comeback tells the story of Mahito, a young boy who loses his mother Hisako in a fire during the war. A couple of years later, he's still feeling the loss: his dad, however, has moved on to the extent that he's taken up with Hisako's little sister Natsuko and got her pregnant, which Mahito finds a bit icky. Moving in with his new stepmother proves traumatic, particularly when he’s constantly hassled by a grey heron who keeps telling him that he should be investigating the mysterious tower close to the house.

For me, Miyazaki peaked with Spirited Away, and everything he’s made since has struggled to match it. Mind you, nobody else has matched it either, so that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But this feels like the most completely realised world he’s created since that masterpiece, and certainly the strangest one: as with Spirited Away, you feel we're in a wholly new place, not just the world we know with a few twists. But Miyazaki’s careful to start his story in a realistic register, and then add the fantastical elements little by little, until the idea of a horde of man-eating parakeets seems like the most logical development in the world. It's a little darker and more gruesome than his earlier work: the kids at this screening who were lapping up the free Totoro activity sheets may find it too intense in parts. But for the rest of us, this is one hell of a ride.

Greta Gerwig6.00pm: Screen Talk: Greta Gerwig [the whole talk right here]

Getting back to LFF events that don't make it into the printed programme: by now we've got used to the idea that the on-stage interviews won't be finalised until a week or so before the festival, so you've got to keep your eyes open online if you want to attend any of them. This year's Screen Talks all sold out within hours of going on sale: in many cases, the tickets were all bought up by BFI members before they could be offered to the general public. It's possible the tickets for Greta Gerwig would have sold even faster if they'd let slip that she was going to be interviewed by Jesse 'Succession' Armstrong - he gets nearly as big a cheer from the audience as she does. Gerwig's unfazed by this: "I'm extremely nervous but ready to answer questions," she promises, and she does.

Armstrong takes the traditional route for these interviews - start with the early days, work through to the latest release. From childhood, Gerwig always wanted to be in the showbiz world, but didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what she wanted to do in it. Failing to get into theatre school was an early disappointment, but around the same time digital technology was opening up the world of low budget cinema to anyone with a couple of ideas: "it felt like the wild West". So she started off acting in a run of low budget mumblecore movies, notorious for being largely improvised. By comparison, the first clip we see - from Frances Ha - is based around a tightly written script (one of her many collaborations with partner Noah Baumbach) and a character defined by her precise use of language.

Over time, Gerwig's done less acting and moved into direction - she doesn't think that these days she could get back into the headspace that allowed her to give those early performances. Armstrong takes a wild swing with a theory that her training as a dancer has given her a sense of how bodies can be arranged in space, and how a camera could movie in harmony with them: Gerwig's happy to run with that idea, and looks at the three movies she's directed in those terms. Lady Bird has a very static viewpoint, with the individual scenes framed "like stained glass windows telling a story". Meanwhile, Little Women - "get ready for camera moves, y'all," she announces - uses the mobility of the camera to emphasise the youth of the protagonists, slowing it down as they get older.

And then... there’s Barbie. This is quite an unusual LFF Screen Talk, because the person involved doesn't have a film showing in the festival: instead, she's been brought over on the flimsy pretext that she's made the highest grossing movie in the world this year. You can tell that from the huge contented sigh that breaks out in the room when we see that the accompanying clip is the song I’m Just Ken. As Armstrong points out, now we've seen it, we all know exactly what a Barbie movie should look like - but in the early stages of production, nobody knew that. All they had was a script with directions like 'and then it becomes a dream ballet and they work it all out through dance'. Gerwig can't quite put her finger on what makes it work, other than her observation that Barbie was the most joyful set she'd ever worked on, and everyone else involved seemed to feel the same way. "Maybe it was all the pink."

Armstrong turns out to be a decent moderator for this event: happy to let Gerwig give room for extended answers, occasionally throwing in his own observations from a fellow writer’s perspective. Still, there's so much love in the room for both people that they could have conversed entirely in farts and the audience would still have been happy. At the end there are even a couple of decent questions from that audience, which is rare at these things. A sample: "you've directed three films so far with a similar theme, is your next film going to be another exploration of womanhood? Also, I love you." The whole shebang was filmed, so you can watch it for yourself at that YouTube link up there.

Ferrari8.45pm: Surprise Film: Ferrari [trailer]

I'm happy to announce that I called the Surprise Film this year, and have witnesses who can vouch for that (hi Rosie). It wasn't that difficult: Ferrari is the only film on this year's international festival circuit that wasn't in the LFF already, or at least the only one not directed by Woody Allen (which was The BBG's worst case scenario).

A big part of the Surprise Film screening is the reveal of the title, but this year it all goes a bit weird. Kristy Matheson comes on stage to conduct the usual audience guessing match: then she brings on director Michael Mann to tell us we're about to see his new film Ferrari: and then we get the film. And Mann comes back for a Q&A afterwards, so it's not like he even blew the surprise so he could get to bed early. I don't know if this was Matheson trying to change things up in her first year, or Mann flexing his ego, but no! Stop getting Surprise Film wrong!

It’s 1957, and former race driver Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver, in the second role he was obviously born to play) has been manufacturing high performance vehicles for the last ten years. Most car companies use the profits from racing to finance their commercial vehicles, but Enzo does it the other way round, and frankly it’s not working. The company is losing money hand over fist, and their reputation on the racetrack is taking a knock from his rivals at Maserati breaking his speed records. Meanwhile, being Italian, he’s having trouble keeping his wife (Penelope Cruz) and his mistress (Shailene Woodley) apart. Over an extremely eventful couple of months, it’s all going to come to a head.

Based on what’s presumably an old script by Troy Kennedy Martin (given that he died in 2009), Ferrari certainly has its moments. Mann inevitably shoots the racing sequences with a huge amount of style - how could he not? - and Penelope Cruz is having a tremendous time playing Ferrari's increasingly embittered wife Laura. But there are all sorts of problems with the film that can’t be ignored.

Here are the three biggest ones. First, Adam Driver's accent, which brings back ugly memories of the crimes against the Italian tongue committed in House Of Gucci. Second, there’s the basic problem that racing cars all look the same: the sight of them tearing along a thousand miles of road in the Mille Miglia race is viscerally exciting, but there's zero dramatic tension because you never know who's in the lead. And worst of all, there are a couple of car crashes which are depicted using CGI so eye-wateringly bad that the people who make Wakaliwood films would probably say "that's a bit shit". Ferrari’s been picked up by Sky Cinema in the UK, so waiting till it comes on telly is probably your best bet.


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