School’s Out

Kids are the worst. French kids are even worse. Environmentalist, precocious, arrogant French kids are worse still.

Laurent Lafitte plays an insufferably stupid supply teacher, drafted in to cover for the previous guy who’s autodefenestration has left the elite class without a teacher.

Turns out the elite class are a bunch of creepy, weird, unpleasant nerds who think they’re on top of the school. From there things ramp up in familiar fashion – cue midnight telephone calls, weird rituals, secrecy and outright defiance.

I’m still sort of processing what the film really want to say but there’s no denying it was an enthralling, unsettling journey from start to finish. Its definitely got some real problems – some of the characters’ actions were just not really credible – but it’s a joy to watch.

Classics round up

12 Angry Men

Does it pass the Bechdel test? Does it hell. There’s only one female character even mentioned in this film. But… perhaps I should cut it some slack for being utterly fabulous.

A breathtaking tour de force of dialogue, this is full of emotional punches and prejudiced opinions that remain all too relevant today. I’m an absolute sucker for fast paced dialogue heavy films that take place in a small set and this is a perfect example of this kind of film at its finest.

Blackmail

Hitchcock’s final silent film and what a film it is! I absolutely love a silent with live accompaniment in the town hall and this was quite possibly the best I’ve seen.

It has all the Hitchcock hallmarks – murder! Suspense! Famous landmarks! And some truly stunning performances form the lead actors. There’s a version recorded with sound but I struggle to imagine Anny Ondra needing any help to be more expressive. She dances from mischief to murder to fear and shame across the film and is captivating throughout.

Plot-wise its not hard to criticise – the main villain is hardly the sharpest tool in the box – but it’s such an enjoyable watch that this is mere quibbling. From the endless smoking to the dawn views of Leicester Square, this is a treat from start to finish.

Inuyashiki

I think it’s fair to confess that I’m not particularly knowledgeable about manga at all. That said, a good film is a good film – however good the source from which it’s adapted, you still need to turn out a good film.

Inuyashiki is a live action film made from a manga original. I have no idea if the manga is good or not. But I do know the film definitely fell short of its potential.

The premise is about as good as it gets. An old-ish guy and a teenager are both reconstructed by aliens and have to adjust to life with their new technologically advanced bodies (gun arms! Jet packs!). One chooses good. The other evil. Cue fight scenes.

How good does that sound?

And to its credit it does start pretty well. The whole superhero self discovery bit is fantastic. After that though it all sort of tails off. Its far too long for its own good. The middle 45 minutes or so just drag. There’s no real exciting story developments between the beginning and the inevitable show down at the end. It’s a real shame because if it had been cut a bit more tightly it would have been a lot of fun. As it was, I was getting bored by the end.

A missed opportunity.

Ana and the Apocalypse

Zombie films can be divided broadly into the camps of classic (think timeless, staggering, flesh hungry ghouls who can only be killed by blows to the head), re-imagined (think 28 Days Later rage, and other wanderings from the classic formula) and… Post Shaun of the Dead.

Shaun did a lot for the zombie film. It er… breathed fresh life into what was becoming a tired genre and brought some proper laughs into horror. More than that, it was a zombie film that poked fun at zombie films that was made by people who loved zombie films. And the enthusiasm showed.

Post Shaun, there have been a lot of ‘funny’ zombie films. Some have been really truly funny. Many have been tired cash ins riding the blood splattered coat tails of what came before. Ana and the Apocalypse is firmly in the former camp. This is a funny film.

A Scottish zombie comedy Christmas musical, no less. And oh so much more than the sum of its parts. The character formula is tried and tested – nerds and jocks alike navigate a path to survival together, discovering something about themselves and each other along the way. We have the missing parent, romantic tensions, loneliness and all the ingredients for a journey of self discovery.

And zombies. And music.

There’s no doubt that these filmmakers love their zombie films. The many excruciating and inventive deaths dished out attest to that. They certainly don’t hold back on the splatter! More surprising is how well they’ve managed to incorporate the songs. I’m by no means a fan of a musical but, far from coping with the musical numbers here, I actually enjoyed them! They managed to play the whole utterly absurd film with such a straight face that you couldn’t help but smile as another song struck up and more zombies were violently dispatched.

Easily one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in a very long time. Top marks.

Possum

Matthew Holness may be best known for the Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace but what he’s offering here is a long way from comedy.

Possum‘s story revolves around a disgraced puppeteer’s return to his hometown, and the emotional (and physical!) baggage he brings with him. It’s not really a story as such, more of a tense psychological episode, as we’re invited to wallow in the fear, guilt and regret of Phillip upon his return.

In many ways it’s low budget horror by the book here – there are no real surprises or breaking with genre here – but that’s no problem: this is a wholehearted deep-dive into horror conventions and comes with all the shocks, suspense and shadows you could hope for.

The actors are superb throughout. Alum Armstrong is spot on in his role as chain smoking, cackling ‘Uncle’ Morris and Sean Harris is a perfect cast. Better still is the sound: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop have really gone to town on the sound effects here and it ramps up the tension dramatically.

Scary stuff.

The Guilty

Is it still a film if nothing happens on film? The Guilty is tense and exciting but there’s not an awful lot to watch.

The entire film takes place inside an emergency call centre, following Asger – the only named character we ever see – over the course of his evening’s shift. As the evening progresses, one caller’s problem grows to drag Asger – and us – into its details. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s more to this problem than there first appears. This is essentially a thriller told over the phone, whilst simultaneously a character study of the man on the end of the line.

It’s certainly clever. The film makes effective use of what must have been a tiny budget. You really do get gripped by the emotional punch of the crimes unfolding, even though its entirely told by off screen voices. For all that, though, there’s no escaping that not a lot happens. And without giving away any of the twists or turns the plot takes, my main problem was that I wasn’t more surprised by any of it. If you’re going to have quite such a paired back approach to story telling I really do expect the story to take me to somewhere thoroughly unexpected. But it never quite did.

Tense and interesting. But not quite everything it could have been.

Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You was fantastic. What starts as a gently funny story of an Oakland couple just barely scratching out a living in an uncle’s garage steadily escalates in weirdness until it hits full blown insanity.

It certainly has a lot to say about capitalism but never veers into lecturing – it’s way too busy being absurdly funny for that. Instead, we follow Cashes Green up through the ranks of telemarketing – using his finest “white voice” – as he pursues a growing paycheck at the expense of friends and family.

Sadly, I can’t really say anything about the weird bits without giving far too much away. Suffice to say all is not as it seems at the utopian/dystopian world of WorryFree Corp.

I definitely wasn’t prepared for this to be as funny as it was – toe curlingly so in some excruciating scenes – but it really hits its mark, balancing between laughter and wincing and still having something serious to say for all of it. No idea what genre it is, but it’s great. Highly recommended.

LIFF31: The Best Films

And the Leeds International Film Festival is almost over. Before we emerge from the darkened cinema room, blinking in the crisp November sunshine, its time to hand out this year’s awards. The film festival itself has some awards, obviously, but I’m talking about the highly-esteemed, much-coveted, Rum and Popcorn Film Awards. So without further ado, it’s time for the Rum and Popcorn 2017 award ceremony!

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn Documentary Award

Brimstone and Glory

Documentary was a mixed bag this year, but Brimstone and Glory and Gaza Surf Club shone through as best in show. While I almost certainly learned more from Gaza Surf Club, Brimstone and Glory was so fabulously cinematic that it just had to claim the prize. Both excellent films.

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn Re-screening Award

Volver

An astonishingly strong line-up this year. Volver only narrow beat the likes of The Wages of Fear and Nikita to this prize. It’s an absolute joy to watch from start to finish.

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn LIFF Official Selection Award

The Florida Project

The strongest of the official selection was Sean Baker’s tale of life, struggles and loss in Florida motels. Visually stunning, fantastically cast and absolutely full of joy and life and beauty. And sadness. Superb film-making. Honourable mention here goes to The Stuff of Dreams which was a completely unexpected favourite of mine.

And finally…

The 2017 Rum and Popcorn LIFF Films of the Festival

The Breadwinner Mutafukaz Canaries

There were a few very near misses – The Bar, Dave Made A Maze and Summer Time Machine Blues were so nearly on this list – but these were each truly fantastic in their own way. Animation had a strong year this time round: The Breadwinner and Mutafukaz are probably at opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways but I was gripped by both from start to finish. Canaries was a much later entry and just shows how great low-budget genre film can be with a little imagination. A stylish, self-contained, clever film.

Even. More. Films.

A few days ago I was writing my summary of the first 20 films of the film festival. Suddenly, we’re up to 40! And just as it was a strong first 20, it’s been a strong second chapter.

It was followed by Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, a documentary on the Magnum photography agency’s interactions with film over the years. All in all it was just a little too slight. There were some pretty pictures, a few funny anecdotes, but that was it really. Similarly weak as a documentary was Suzanne Ciani : a Life in Waves. It could easily have been subtitled “how one trailblazing, innovative and imaginative woman wasted decades making crummy new age ballads”. A whole lot of self-congratulatory patting on the head but not a lot of much interest.

Gaza Surf Club was the first documentary that really lived up to that word. Fantastic stuff. We’re taken on a tour of the beaches of Gaza city where Palestinians are riding the waves. Faced with the impossibility of importing surfboards, limited materials and repair skills, social condemnation (especially of the women) and more, they keep doing what they love. It’s a touching and illuminating little documentary that crucially refuses to take sides. It never explicitly condemns anyone, which is particularly rare in the charged atmosphere of Israeli-Palestinian affairs!

Equally enthralling, although perhaps slightly less educational was the astonishing Brimstone and Glory. The story of the annual celebrations in the Mexican town of Tultepec – home of the fireworks – its one of the most impressive cinematic spectacles I think I’ve ever seen. The residents built enormous pylons to which they strap tonnes of fireworks (“castles”) and build huge bulls which they – you’ve guessed it – stuff with fireworks. Then they proceed to wander about, climb the pylons, run with the bulls etc. all while the fireworks explode in all directions. Its terrifying stuff and I never, ever want to visit Tultepec but it’s truly astonishing.

There were a lot of strong retrospective screenings in this chapter. The Wages of Fear is a fabulously tense road trip with a truckful of nitroglycerine (only let down by being too long), whilst The Man on the Roof is a film that has no real idea what it wants to be. It starts as a police procedural murder mystery, swiftly abandons that and becomes an action movie that quickly moves from being at least halfway serious to being almost slapstick. It’s a weird one.

Diva, Nikita and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were all fab to see on the big screen, bringing international conspiracy, espionage action and grisly murder investigations respectively. Elsewhere, El Diputado brought a heady mix of post-Franco Spanish politics, homophobia and communism and The Vanishing contributed kidnapping and some seriously creepy characters. There was a good range to the retrospectives this year – a nice mix of big screen famous and unearthed Euro-thriller gems.

Which brings us, finally, to modern fiction! The Stuff of Dreams was a fantastic retelling of the Tempest on a Sardinian prison island. Simple, focused and beautiful it was one of my surprise favourites of this batch. Following that, Arcadia was an astonishingly beautiful montage of a century of BFI footage of Britain; Under the Tree a truly tragicomic depiction of loss and neighbourly-hatred in Iceland; The Teacher a small-town satire of authoritarian control and corruption in a school classroom. Better still were The Florida Project – Sean Baker’s touching tale of life in Florida motels – Bad Genius – an absurdly over-dramatic story of Thai students cheating their way to STIC exam success – and the truly fabulous Summer Time Machine Blues. This ticked every time-travel cliché in the book as it managed to make an expansive, fun and silly film despite being pretty much limited to one room and 6 characters. With heaps time-travel silliness, this doesn’t take itself too seriously at all and was a joy to watch.

It would easily have been the best of the fiction if Canaries hadn’t dropped in at number 40 to challenge it. Canaries is (mostly) British genre film done right. As with Summer Time Machine Blues they manage to make a little go along way – aside from a few shots in American hotel rooms, pretty much everything here revolves around a handful of people in one house in a small Welsh town. And yet it manages to create the feeling of global threat, of a real disaster taking place that is much bigger than what we see. An absolute gem. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do next.

Best five new films:

  • The Stuff of Dreams
  • Summer Time Machine Blues
  • The Florida Project
  • Canaries

Best two re-screenings:

  • The Wages of Fear
  • Nikita

Best two documentaries:

  • Gaza Surf Club
  • Brimstone and Glory

So. Many. Films.

Oh my. So many films. It was naive to think I stood a chance in keeping up with reviewing these. With hardly any time leftover for essentials like eating and sleeping, there’s no way I can write up full reviews of all of these films. I’m 24 films in already, having blogged properly about just 7. Ouch.

So rather than worrying about that, it’s probably time to take stock of what I’ve seen and fast-forward over a handful of things I’m just not going to review. So this is a round-up of the first 20 films I saw of LIFF31 (or LIFF2017 as they seem to insist on calling it this year).

The Square and The Killing of a Sacred Deer got their own write-ups. Veronica, The Bar, Dark Owl Shorts, Cold Skin and The Endless were covered under the Day of the Dead 11 post. Happy End was just OK. So what else?

Leeds United! was a moving tale of the 1970 Leeds clothworkers’ strike. Compelling viewing. And then animation day brought a whole slew of wonders. I think Lu Over The Wall (beautiful Japanese tale of kinda-vampiric-kinda-friendly mermaids) and The Breadwinner (Afghani girl earns for her family after her father is imprisoned) each merit their own write-up – watch this space – as they were easily amongst the best things I’ve seen. Likewise for Mutafukaz (a fast-paced crime-filled action romp through Dark Meat City. In French). Perfect Blue rounded out the day: a thrilling slice of anime crime-drama from the 1990s. The only real disappointment was Big Fish and Begonia which had a lot to like about it (crazy rat lady! dragon spells! crossing between the worlds of life and death!) but never really came together as an interesting film. Even so, animation day was great this year.

And that takes us to 14. Next up was The Lodge – organ accompanied Hitchcock murder thriller in a foggy 20s London (fab stuff). I was less impressed by Gabriel and the Mountain. G&tM follows the (true) story of Gabriel the Brazilian as he explores Africa. It’s actually a fantastically put together film. The landscapes are stunning, the scenes of daily life in Tanzania, Kenya and around are fascinating and its filmed sensitively: you never feel like a tourist, and nor does Gabriel. Instead you’re invited into people’s homes, out on hunts, and to marketplaces. It’s only really let down by Gabriel himself being such an utter… twerp that viewing becomes painful. He’s unpleasant to his girlfriend, short-tempered, arrogant and egotistical. Ugh. As he puts himself in danger by steadfastly ignoring sensible local knowledge and advice you (I) just stop caring about him.

Next up If I Think Of Germany At Night was a slice of behind the scenes techno documentary. It was a little thin. A handful of talking heads explain why they think their scene is important. A few scenes of techno playing in clubs and festivals. And that’s it. It felt a bit of a missed opportunity really: I can’t believe anyone watching learnt anything very new from it.

The first 20 was rounded out by a trio of retrospectives. We get classic Fulci giallo Don’t Torture a Duckling – child-killing mysteries in a small town. Is it black magic? Or something worse? – bonkers Czech political satire The Party and The Guests – I suspect this could do with another viewing. I think some of the cleverness went over my head a bit – and Almodovar materpiece Volver. It was absolutely stunning to see Volver on the big screen, from a 35mm print no less. The colours, the music! Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura steal the show but every bit of this film is a treat. Especially Chus Lampreave’s bonkers old Tia Paula! This is classic Almodovar, combining social criticisms, Spanish superstitions and family drama to stunning effect.

And that’s it. First 20 done.

But what were the best? What’s up there as candidates to win one of the uh… much coveted Rum and Popcorn film awards? I figured I’d trim each twenty down a bit. So here’s the summary of chapter one:

In no order, best 5 new films:

  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • The Bar
  • Lu Over The Wall
  • The Breadwinner
  • Mutafukaz

In no order, best 2 old films:

  • Volver
  • Perfect Blue