1.45pm: Family Album
I'm not an enormous fan of short films, to be honest - at most Festivals, my annual requirement of itty bitty movies is fulfilled by the Animation programmes, of which more later. So, we start with full disclosure: I went to this programme of short films with a family theme because the son of the boss of a regular site contributor directed one of them. I've decided to be professional about it and not tell you which one it is, though, so see if you can guess.
My limited previous experience of LFF shorts programmes is that they try hard to group together films with a similar theme, but sometimes the odd one refuses to fit into the template. The most tentative connection here comes from Joe King and Rosie Pedalow's Sea Change, a technically stunning series of tracking shots alongside a caravan park that seamlessly moves from day to night and back again. Presumably if you'd had a family holiday in a place like this, the film would impress on more than just a technical level. It's possibly aiming for the sort of nostalgic pang that Jeremiah Zagar's Coney Island, 1945 pulls off effortlessly, recreating a memory of a specific time and place with a carefully tweaked colour scheme that recalls hand-tinted photographs.
The rest of the shorts are more narrative in nature, and conform to a wide range of national stereotypes. Amy Neil's Can't Stop Breathing is a dour but touching tale of a daughter trying to look after her ageing mother in a remote Scottish cottage, with fine performances from Jane Lapotaire and Lynsey Baxter. Patrick Poubel's For Interieur charmingly examines a young French boy's surreal memories of his late grandfather. Fucking 14 is the work of Christina Rosendahl from Denmark, and follows the ups and downs of a teenage girl's sexual awakening for a little longer than is actually comfortable.
Of the two American narrative shorts, Rebecca Cutter's Eating looks at the childhood trauma that caused a lifetime of overeating, with some nicely recreated seventies period detail: while Ellen-Alinda Verhoeff's The Foster Son is a chilling little tale, curiously the only one to suggest that the family unit may be a flawed concept. But my favourite of the lot is Matti Harju's Man Seeking Man, a typical example of the deadpan depressive comedy that Finns like Aki Kaurismaki pull off so well. In the first scene, an older man places an ad on a gay contact service for a twenty-year old partner. In the second scene, a younger man phones his mother to ask for his estranged father's address. The rest of the plot is like watching trains crash into each other in slow motion, which makes it all the funnier.
4.15pm: International Animation Programme 2
The Belated Birthday Girl has developed a taste for the LFF's animation programmes, but couldn't make it to this year's one. Not wanting to miss out on a good thing, she cheerfully said to me "I hope it's rubbish like last year's was." Which was news to me, so I had to look it up, and yes, last year's programme was "a bit of a letdown" if you believe what I wrote back then. The bad news for The BBG is that this year's international animation showcase is a great improvement on 2004's: although, given that I've only attended one programme of the two offered each year, maybe I've just been lucky.
If there's one disappointment in the bunch, it's the Korean film Chohon (Calling Back The Spirit), which annoyingly is the only one I could get a picture for. As you can see, it looks lovely, but its narrative is irritatingly confused: the six credited directors (for a 16 minute short) may be a possible explanation for why it doesn't really tie together. The standard of the other eight films is consistently high, though. Even the token abstract student film - T Kim Noce's After - works well amongst the predominantly narrative pieces here, using a variety of mixed media to movingly illustrate three interviews with suicidally depressed people, describing how they made it through to the other side.
Charging through the rest of the programme: Slinky Films come out best for the day with two humorous pieces. Laura Heit's Look For Me is a thoroughly charming meditation on what its narrator would do if she became invisible: while David Shrigley and Chris Shepherd's Who I Am And What I Want is a more raucous and roughly-drawn affair, reminding me of the work of Phil Mulloy in its determination to do anything for a quick bleak laugh. Shaun Clark's Lightman tells the story of one man's obsession with keeping the dark at bay - its rough cut-out style is hard to get a handle on initially, but it all comes together for a suitably creepy climax. There's more understated creepiness in Alain Gagnol and Jean Loup Felicoli's The Corridor, where a man's job as a security guard slowly pushes him over the edge. And Dudouet Vincent's Unicode is a splendid technical achievement, as two 3-D dancers bring communication to a 2-D world.
But, as ever, it's the simple one-joke shorts that are the most popular with the audience. Coincidentally, both of them exploit clifftops for comic effect: Laura Neuvoven's The Last Knit has a knitter working on a gigantic scarf that trails over the edge of a cliff, while Tomek Baginski's Fallen Art is based around a military project which involves soldiers being thrown off a cliff on a regular basis. If it was a good enough gag for Chuck Jones, why shouldn't everyone else use it too?
6.15pm: The Great Silence
It must be great having Sir Christopher Frayling's job. You get to sit around all day watching spaghetti Westerns, and they give you a bloody knighthood for it. As the UK's leading expert in the genre, he gave a bit of historical background before this rare screening of Sergio Corbucci's 1968 film. By then, Sergio Leone's three collaborations with Clint Eastwood had taken the world by storm, and Italian cinema had realised there was a market out there: around fifty or sixty spaghetti Westerns were in production that year. Corbucci's approach was to ring as many changes as possible on what was already becoming a predictable formula. The most obvious one is the change from sand to snow: The Great Silence is set on the snowy plains of Utah (though it was actually filmed in the Pyrenees). Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) is the corrupt leader of the town, forcing all the decent people to live as outlaws on its outskirts. Pollicut pays the bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski) to get rid of anyone who gets in his way: in retaliation, the outlaws find their own champion, a taciturn gunman called Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant).
I've seen a couple of Sergio Corbucci films in the past - you may be familiar with the Trinity series of comedy Westerns he made with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Corbucci's not exactly what you'd call a stylist: let's face it, anyone who casts Klaus Kinski as a character called Loco isn't particularly interested in subtlety. All the usual tropes you'd expect from the hack spaghetti Western are there: the wildly inconsistent camerawork, the crazed overacting, the poorly synchronised dubbing. But overall, it works as a film: the change in setting is refreshing, the multinational cast coheres nicely, and it's all tied together by an Ennio Morricone score with a beautifully hummable theme tune.
The most fascinating thing about The Great Silence comes at the end, though. Even by the misanthropic standards of most spaghettis, its ending is surprisingly bleak. Which makes it all the more hysterical that the restorers at the Munich Film Museum managed to track down a couple of minutes of silent footage intended as an alternative ending for the Asian market: it's included after the closing credits in this version. Asian territories generally demand that good triumphs over evil at the end, so their finale is a lot more upbeat - but it requires a character to more or less come back from the dead to make it work. The lack of sound means we have to make up our own explanations as to how this miracle occurred, which just makes it even funnier. And, it has to be said, it makes you appreciate the original ending a hell of a lot more.
8.30pm: The Brothers Grimm
For all of Suze's complaints about the poor organisation of the LFF screenings at the Odeon West End, there are some advantages to their poor timekeeping. By the time we came out of The Great Silence, it was only a couple of minutes before the scheduled 8.30pm start of The Brothers Grimm: by the time we got to the Odeon after a twenty minute journey across town, director Terry Gilliam was still on stage introducing the film. Hooray! And (as seems to be traditional at the Sky Movies Galas) as Sky can't give us subscriptions to their channels as a freebie, we all got a Brothers Grimm t-shirt thrown in as part of the deal. I mean, yes, their movie channels are still overpriced shit, but it's a nice shirt.
Meanwhile, in 19th century Germany, fear and terror stalk the land. As if being occupied by the French wasn't bad enough, the small towns are plagued by enchantments, witches and all manner of supernatural nastiness. Who you gonna call? Will Grimm (Matt Damon) and his brother Jake (Heath Ledger), of course. Except they're really con artists, staging fake exorcisms and taking cash from gullible villagers. But eventually, they find themselves with a real case of enchantment to deal with: a forest with walking trees, a marauding man-wolf, and a series of disappearing young girls.
Famously, this is Gilliam's first film - well, first completed film - since Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in 1998. Narrative coherence has never been the man's strong point, but Fear And Loathing seemed more all over the place than usual: still, most people gave Gilliam the benefit of the doubt at the time, assuming he was just trying to depict the state of mind of one of America's best loved dope addicts. But seven years on, Gilliam's made a kids' film playing with themes from dozens of classic fairy tales - and it's almost as incoherent. Almost. God forbid that I should turn into one of those people who complains that movies these days are too noisy and frenetic, but there are several sequences in the first half of The Brothers Grimm where Gilliam seems determined to hurl everything including the kitchen sink at you at once, and to hell with whether the viewer can make sense of it or not.
It does get better, though. When Gilliam isn't trying to bombard you with stuff and pulls back a bit, there are still moments of the visual imagination and gruesome wit we've always loved him for: and as the story progresses deeper into the forest, we get more and more of those moments. He's helped a lot by Matt Damon, who works well as the rational one of the Brothers, in a performance good enough to banish all memories of his appearance in Team America: World Police. (You're doing the voice in your head right now, aren't you?) Heath Ledger, however, is as crap as usual, with his total lack of anything-very-much emphasised even more this time by a pair of specs that makes him look like Mark Lamarr. Still, the rest of the film moves quickly enough around him to cover for that.
But for all of Gilliam's complaints over the years about studio heads not letting him do what he wants, I suspect he'd actually work better with some solid constraints on him. During a six month break in production on Grimm, he bashed out an entire other movie called Tideland - maybe that's the one I want to see.
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