Day of the Dead 11

It’s the weekend at the Film Festival and the films are coming thick and fast. With no more than 45 minutes between each film, trying to do individual write-ups is probably a doomed gesture. So here’s the Day of the Dead 11 round-up, just dipping into each film as it whizzes past.

First up was Veronica from [REC] director Paco Plaza. Given that [REC] was a zombie series with a serious leaning towards demonic possession, Plaza’s already demonstrated his skills in this area. Here, though, he goes full on and really ramps up the demonic elements. We get ouija, blind nuns, shattering glasses, occult symbols, shadowy figures and all the fun and games you’d expect. This is definitely a solid and creepy possession film but… it’s probably not much more than that. Plaza sticks to the tropes and imagery you’d expect and doesn’t really challenge the genre too much. This is fine, and it means this is a tight, efficient thrill ride – lots of foreboding, lots of jump-scares, lots of tension – but at the end of it all I’m left feeling a little bit like I’d seen it before. The focus on children was pretty neat though, and certainly helped to ramp up the scares.

Next up was a strangers-trapped-in-a-small-place thriller, de la Iglesia’s The Bar. It started tense – snipers are picking off everyone who leaves a Madrid bar, a disparate bunch of strangers have to band together to survive – and just keeps on turning it up a notch. There are a few missteps – the amazingly tight, fast-paced narrative loosens a bit towards the end and it loses focus a little – but its a genuinely thrilling ride. The characters are almost all rich and well-developed, far better than the simple types you often get in these kind of films, each with their own complexities, weaknesses etc. And how is it possible that a film about a bunch of strangers dying one by one actually makes me miss living in Madrid? No idea. Great stuff.

The shorts were a very mixed bunch. Some Kafka-esque weirdness (Gone), some plot-scrawled-on-the-back-of-an-envelope-and-probably-should-have-stayed-there disappointments (Sons of Bitches), some why even bother making that (Strays), some decent-zombie-film-but-way-overlong-at-more-than-30-minutes (Lau and Laudrup) and some others (Witches Milk). The star of the show was undoubtedly Clankerman. So very British in its bonkers belief in a hidden bureaucracy carrying out petty annoyances. It’s also available online. You should go and watch it now.

Penultimate feature was Cold Skin. It was… OK. Some blue scampering merman-fishmen-sort-of-like-Avatar people attack a British weatherman, stationed on the island for 12 months to record the wind. He spends most of the rest of the film fighting them as they attack the lighthouse he’s holed up in. And it’s about as much fun as that sounds. There are definitely some colonialism overtones (whose island is it anyway?) to unpick but I can’t really be bothered. This felt ever so much like a short that someone had accidentally made into a feature film.

The day was rounded out with The Endless, in which we follow two brothers who got escaped an “alien death cult” a decade ago… back to the cult they left. I was flagging a bit by this point so perhaps it didn’t really get the attention it deserved, but it never really quite got going. The premise was interesting, the characters were well-developed and intriguing and – without giving too much of the plot away – the scifi/fantasy elements were intriguing and well presented but something was off. Enjoyable, but largely forgettable.

Really, the surprise of Day of the Dead this year was quite how light on horror it was. Veronica was the only one of the day with real horror credentials. As much as I loved The Bar, enjoyed the shorts and The Endless, none of it was really scoring high on the horror notes. Great fun. Needed more scares and/or splatter.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

If The Square was somewhat less than I was expecting, The Killing of a Sacred Deer pulled it back by going way beyond what I was hoping for. To be fair, this is partly because I’d forgotten almost everything I knew about it… I’m usually a little suspicious of big name actors doing intense genre thrillers – too often they pull their punches and aren’t as tense, brutal or imaginative as you might expect from a more indie offering. So Colin Farell and Nicole Kidman didn’t exactly leave me optimistic about this one. Add on the fact it’s getting a full cinema release and you start to wonder whether its even worth it being in the film festival at all.

But wait.

I’d forgotten who the director is. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t mess about. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t pull punches. Yorgos Lanthimos makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer every bit as unsettling as you could hope for. If you’ve seen Dogtooth or Lobster you know that this is going to be intense, weird, and fascinating from start to finish. It’s nothing much like either of those two films but the same touch is present here.

It’s fantastic he’s getting to do such high-profile projects. I think if you’d told me as I left Dogtooth at the Hyde Park Picture House many years ago, that Lanthimos would be directing Farell and Kidman in an English language film on general release I’d have laughed at you. Or assumed he’d have sold out, toned it down for a wider audience. But the weird keeps going at full pace.

The big name cast are excellent here. The script gives Kidman a lot less to do than Farell, but there’s no doubting that the real star here is Barry Keoghan as Martin. I’m especially keen to give nothing of the plot away, so let’s just say that Martin is an odd boy.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a treat. If you like a thriller, or have enjoyed Lanthimos’ films, it should be right up your street.

The Square

And so here we are. Another year, another film festival. This one’s got heaps of goodies to explore – screenings of Nikita, some exciting looking horror, the who-knows-what-it-will-be-like craziness of Dave Made A Maze… And once again, pass in hand, I’m going to as many as possible. And writing up as many as possible here. Will I make it to the end? Will I give up writing reviews halfway through? Will I fall asleep in the comfy seats at the Everyman (again)? Who knows?

So without further ado, onto the first film of the year!

The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This makes it serious cinema. Not a serious film, you understand, but serious cinema. A proper film. A film that people-who-know-about-film think is a really good film.

I didn’t much like it.

We follow museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) in his descent from suave media-savvy middle class chic to broken man, rummaging through the bins. Via daylight robbery, one-night stands, threatening letters, showdowns with children, and a monkey impersonator. So far, so good.

But the film sacrifices what little it has by way of narrative for a series of spectacular set-pieces. I can be as negative as I like about this film but I could never deny that it has some truly memorable (and toe-curling!) scenes. Similarly, there’s no escaping that its a beautiful film: some of the shots are absolutely stunning.

The strength of these elements only serves to throw the things it lacks into stronger contrast though. Put simply: I don’t care. Every other character in the film only really serves as a backdrop against which Christian’s flaws can be demonstrated – we scarcely see a conversation in which he is not involved. And at the end of the day that means I spent two and a half hours watching a man make some crummy decisions, employ a PR agency straight out of Nathan Barley, alienate everyone he should be close to, etc. etc. etc.

It looks amazing. Bits of it are fantastic. But as a film it just doesn’t hit the right notes. (But I’m not the Cannes jury…)

Dark Owl Fantasy Shorts

More shorts! This time with a fantasy edge, some of which were pretty dark!

All of these were decent, but some made a lot more impact than others. Roadside Assistance (dir: Bears Fonte) is the most slight of the lot. It’s a bit dark and gently funny but that’s about it. The Midnight Shift (IMDB) is dark tale of a robber’s night posing as a taxi driver. It’s neat, but nothing very surprising. The Call is more inventive – a policeman discovers his long-missing wife’s body on the beach and undergoes some curious transformations. Trailer here.

Here’s where it starts to get really good. The Man Who Caught a Mermaid is a good and disturbing story of an old fisherman obsessed with finding a mermaid. It beginning to tear at his marriage and his sanity. Excellent stuff. Even better is the super-creepy Pearlies about a ferocious tooth-fairy mouse terrorising a father and son as they clear out grandma’s old house.

Best of the lost though was The Frozen Eye. Bernard discovers a peephole from his flat into the room below. What starts as curiosity develops into obsession which develops into… well… let’s just say it had one of the most difficult to watch scenes of the festival. Ouch.

The Void

Time for some proper horror! The Void has a lot of very neat touches – some familiar and some original – as it dances between a whole bunch of horror genres. Ultimately, in my opinion, it goes the wrong way and turns into a kind of silly that I’m less a fan of. I don’t want to go into any specifics as it’d really spoil the plot but after having thrown a lot of genres in there I feel like it chose the wrong one to finally stick with.

Disappointment around the last third or so notwithstanding, the journey to get there was a rollercoaster ride of fun. We get touches of revenge killer violence (someone’s been burnt alive outside a remote farmhouse before the opening credits have even rolled!), a dash of cult (who are the figures dressed in sheets with black triangles drawn on the front?), isolationism (barricaded inside a mostly closed hospital), hints of zombie and some physical monster effects to make John Carpenter proud. And it escalates fast. There’s heaps of bloodshed, shouting, axe-waving and stabbing within the first 30 minutes and it never really lets up.

As I said before, this doesn’t turn into my kind horror film. Despite that, I can’t fault it at all for its style and wholehearted embrace of horror genres. Great fun.

Drinks
Maisel Weisse. Another discovery in the Hyde Park Picture House bar. Saw someone order this the other day and made a mental note to try it next time I was there. Well worth it.

Here Is Harold

I’ve not seen a lot of Scandinavian comedies but it does seem that most of the ones I have seen tend to find comedic events born out of very bleak times. This may well reflect the programmers of the Leeds Film Festival more than it does Scandinavian comedy. I don’t know. Either way, the really very funny Here is Harold starts from a premise that couldn’t get much bleaker.

Harold and Marny run a furniture shop in a town in Norway. They have a happy life and all seems well. And then IKEA builds a store next door. Cue downward spiral of loss of earnings, Margot’s loss of mind and other sadness. Its not a cheery start. And it doesn’t get much better when Harold shares his plan to revenge-kidnap the founder of IKEA to his divorced, jobless, alcoholic son. Happily, things do perk up from there. Sort of.

We get whisked off to Sweden for a madcap adventure to kidnap Kamprad, the IKEA founder, and possibly ransom or blackmail him. Unexpectedly, he finds the whole affair a lot more exciting than threatening and the adventure rocks back and forth between plot and farce. It’s fabulous stuff.

Drinks
Anspach and Hobday Smoked Brown Beer – I’ve not heard of these guys before. They’re a London based brewery and their brown ale, it turns out, is great.

World Animation Award

The Film Festival has an impressive commitment to showing world-class short films so I always make sure to catch a few of the sessions – the animation is usually a highlight and this year was no exception. I’m not going to go through each in detail, but skate over the lot and focus on a few of the best.

Totem is pretty and sad, A Love Story is gorgeous but weird. Party by Daniel Barany is gorgeous and funny (see a theme here?). We go dancing through a progressively more debauched party. Barany’s Vimeo account is here, but sadly doesn’t have the actual film on it.

Eternal Hunting Grounds was astonishingly pretty and dead creepy (kids bury dead animals so that they go to their ‘eternal hunting grounds’ – or do they?) but overlong. Given the cumulative runtime of the previous three would fit inside the runtime of this one, this should really have done more to justify the time.

Ivan’s Need is absolutely fabulous, very funny and decidedly NSFW. The director’s Vimeo account has a (clean) teaser trailer but, once again, it doesn’t seem like you can get to the full film online.

I don’t really remember anything about The Empty. The animation is pretty but… it obviously didn’t make a huge impression on me. Far better was the astonishingly wonderful and funny The Bald Future. Trailer below:

Jonas and the Sea and Piano rounded out the collection in high style. The former is a beautiful and bizarre story of a man’s series of homemade submersible vehicles while the latter is just stunning. Utterly black comedy with tightropes, pianos and all sorts of mishaps. Trailer below:

Assassination Classroom: Graduation

Last year, Assassination Classroom, screened in Cottage Road, was one of the unexpected (for me, at least) triumphs of the whole festival. We’d gone to it knowing that it sounded dead weird (an octopus like alien appears on Earth and becomes a school teacher. His class have the rest of the year to learn how to kill him) but not knowing much else about it. And it was great. Not just, a bit of good fun but really, entertainingly, memorably great. And utterly silly.

So the sequel came with some expectations to live up to. Could one of our favourite films of last year possibly keep up the quality? The answer is: yes, mostly.

Assassination Classroom: Graduation is a somewhat different film to the first. Whilst the first was a series of escalating madcap scenarios in which the class might kill the teacher, this one has a (relatively) more straight-faced tone. We trade in some of the more slapstick elements for a quite wonderful superhero backstory parody (think Wolverine!), a love interest and grittier fighting. This does mean its not quite the same ridiculous fun as the original, but I don;t think they really could have sustained that. Instead of just trying to do the same but more, we get a pretty decent superhero film – much like Deadpool this both teases and lives up to the superhero tropes – with a dash of yellow octopus thrown in.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend starting here – you need to see the original first – but this ticked all the right boxes. Excellent stuff.

Drinks
Kirkstall Dissolution Extra IPA. Excellent as ever.

Kids Police

Tokyo is overrun with violence and crime. The shady organisation, Red Venus, is responsible. The police are helpless. So a special taskforce is formed with the sole intention of bring down Red Venus… …and then in an unfortunate incident with some magic gas are all turned into children. Uh… yes. The central premise is pretty damn funny. We get the wise-cracking cops, gun-toting violence, street brawls and all the hallmarks of 70s cop shows, but the lead characters are all children. It’s a well studied spoof – full of double-crossing, hidden identities, kidnap and love-interests.

Sadly, its not quite funny enough. At the end of the day, the ‘the-police-are-kids’ shtick boils down to one joke stretched out over the course of the whole film. The rest is good but it’s never on the Naked Gun level of funny, and relies on the kids joke a little too much. I didn’t realise when I saw it, but this is actually a spin-ff from a hit TV show. I imagine it works somewhat better in small episodes. Still, a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Drinks
five Points Railway Porter. Back in the Hyde Park Picture House, and back to the best porter around.