Oct 16, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Family Films

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
Dir: Patrick Imbert, Benjamin Renner
This delightful French animated film is set up as three short plays, put on by the animals in a farmyard. In Baby Delivery, Pig and his dimwitted friends, Rabbit and Duck, must fill in for an injured Stork. The Big Bad Fox sees Fox accidentally become mother to three chicks he steals for himself and Wolf to eat. In Saving Christmas, Duck believes he has killed Father Christmas and he, Rabbit and Pig must fill in for him, as they did for the Stork.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is this year’s Family Gala screening at the London Film Festival, this is the strand that contains the films pitched at children, but this is a true family film. It will delight children (I’d suggest it for ages six and over) but, without aiming jokes over children’s heads, it should also work for adults. The animation style is very different; a little sketchy, but beautifully simple and full of character rather than crude, but the tone of the film has much in common with classic animated shorts. The slapstick gags come thick and fast, with the timing and execution of classic era Tom and Jerry, while the way these moments combine with the verbal humour recalls Looney Tunes strongly (especially in the relationship between Pig, Rabbit and Duck).

There are some wonderfully absurd touches and running gags to be enjoyed; the chickens forming a self-defence group because the guard dog is lazy, the calamities that happen to Pig’s house and Little Michel, who pops up in the last two stories to endearing and hilarious effect.

Any further review of this film would amount to my repeating my favourite jokes, which would rather spoil what is a wonderfully enjoyable film. I will say to stay in your seats during the credits as during them there are some lovely jokes, a recipe and a closing moment that seems to be a nod to Michigan J. Frog and sent me out of the cinema with a mile wide smile on my face. This may be pitched as a kids film, but it’s for anyone with a functional funnybone.

The Day My Father Became A Bush
Dir: Nicole Van Kilsdonk
Toda (Celeste Holsheimer) is ten years old and lives with her pastry chef father (Teun Kuilboer) in an unnamed country. When war breaks out between ‘The Ones’ and ‘The Others’ Toda’s grandmother comes to stay, while her father is called to fight. Eventually it becomes too dangerous at home and Toda is sent abroad to join the mother (Noortje Herlaar) she doesn't know. Along the way she gets separated from the people taking her and must make her way on her own.

I am a great believer that children’s cinema can and should be much more than mindless entertainment (not that a bit of mindless entertainment is a bad thing, whether you’re six or thirty six). The Day My Father Became A Bush tackles some big issues: war and its futility, displacement and the dislocating reality of suddenly becoming a refugee, but does it from a child’s eye view, making those issues comprehensible for its target audience. A big part of this success is in the way it addresses war. Nicole Van Kilsdonk never explores what the fighting is about or whether we should see ‘The Ones’ or ‘The Others’ as the good guys in the conflict. This isn't what’s important to Toda, what matters to her is that her father is away and that his camouflage be good enough to make sure he comes home (in one of the film’s most quietly touching scenes she puts branches on his helmet so ‘even birds will think you’re a tree’). 

Ultimately, the film says, which side we’re on doesn't matter much. Her father wears a blue badge but at one point Toda finds herself sharing a shack with a man wearing a blue badge, soon she’s sharing food with him and, sweetly, helping him learn to give orders (he has deserted because he found he wasn't assertive enough for his command role. This scene is a fine example of the way the film leavens its messages with humour and heart.

Toda is a great character for young girls to see and identify with. She’s inquisitive and intelligent, brave in the face of scary situations and compassionate with a slightly younger boy who attaches himself to her, whom she nicknames Stickie (Matsen Montsma). She’s also just a typical ten year old, who calls herself a daddy’s girl. As Toda, Celeste Holsheimer gives a performance free of anything actorly or precocious. She hits the funny moments nicely, but is particularly adept in the dramatic scenes, especially towards the end of the film when, having lost her mother’s address, Toda finds herself a refugee.

The Day My Father Became A Bush asks kids to engage with some big themes, but it takes them gently through those ideas, leavening them with humour and, even in the film’s toughest moments, the optimistic outlook that Toda radiates. It’s an entertaining and intelligent film and an ideal opportunity to discuss some challenging subjects with your kids. 

Oct 15, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: Suspiria

Dir: Dario Argento
While he continues to dilute his legacy with garbage like Giallo and Dracula 3D (and the rest of the last two decades), it’s a fine time to be reminded that, at one time, Dario Argento made some of the most visually stunning horror cinema ever seen. Suspiria, recoloured to its intended luridness and remastered in 4K for its 40th anniversary, is a brutal, beautiful, masterpiece.

The paper thin story of Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet dancer, going to a famous dance academy where people begin to disappear and be killed, couldn’t be any less important. This isn’t one of Argento’s many whodunnits, instead he simply wants a framework on which to hang the film’s stunning set design, lighting and its graphic gore.

Suspiria’s tagline famously told us that the only thing more terrifying than its last 12 minutes were the first 92. I agree in part. The film’s first 15 minutes or so, up until the first two deaths have been shown, are a self-contained masterwork. The vivid lighting, drenching what should be a drab rainy night in unnatural colour, the striking set design - all sharp lines and symmetry - and the Goblin score; ethereal at first, building to something sinister, all these things combine with the shock of sudden violence in a sequence that envelops us completely in the world of the film.

The scenes in the dance school, with their obvious dubbing and over the top line reads, aren’t the film’s strongest suit, but the disconnection from reality that dubbing often lends is, intentionally or otherwise, effective in further dislocating us from reality, just as the film does to Suzy. This isn’t to say that the performances don’t work for the film though, the delicately pretty Jessica Harper isn’t one of horror cinema’s tougher final girls, but our journey through the world of the film is much like hers - slightly surreal, sometimes unnerving, sometimes confusing - and Harper takes us along on that journey effectively. Most memorable among the cast is Alida Valli, (over)playing strict ballet teacher Miss Tanner to often very funny effect.

Argento sprinkles scares, surrealism and beautifully designed slayings throughout the film, but the tagline undersells the film’s last 12 minutes. Suzy’s surreal journey through the ballet school to find the secret at its heart contains some of Argento’s most incredible and iconic visuals, bringing the film to a crescendo. On this viewing, with the picture so vividly remastered and the sound pounding into my ears, I saw Suspiria on a non-narrative level. That’s probably how it works best, as a purely sensory experience; shape, colour and noise colliding into the most beautiful of nightmares.  

Oct 12, 2017

24FPS @ LFF 2017: The Cured

Dir: David Freyne
The zombie movie is, it’s fair to say, a subgenre that has a well established set of cliches. Those can be done poorly, they can be done well, but it’s not frequently that anyone brings a truly new idea to the table. Credit is due The Cured for having at least one original idea that opens up new avenues to explore in zombie cinema. Unfortunately it does less with it than you’d hope.

In Ireland, the Maze virus has devastated the population, turning swathes of people into zombie like creatures. There is hope though, a cure has been found that has treated approximately 75% of cases, curing the rage and bloodlust, making the cured immune to further infection, but leaving them with the memories of what they did while they were infected. Slowly being returned to society, the Cured are largely rejected. As part of the third wave of returnees Senan (Sam Keeley) moves back in with his sister in law Abby (Ellen Page), he’s trying to reintegrate, but Connor (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Senan’s friend from quarantine, is trying to him to join a group of Cured planning to fight back against their treatment and the planned killing of the 25% of apparently incurable infected.

The central idea of The Cured is genuinely interesting. I can recall seeing films featuring attempts to treat zombies before, but never one that examined the idea of what would happen if that treatment were effective. The political side of the film has some potentially powerful parallels in how we view other ‘outsiders’ in society with fear. It feels especially relevant to the idea of how prisoners are treated and try to cope after their release. Sadly, it’s all a bit blunt and what starts out as quite a refreshing idea ends up being depicted through rather cliche imagery before descending into little more than the umpteenth riff on 28 Days Later.

The performances are all fairly solid. Sam Keeley has an effective melancholy as Senan, holding in a secret about the things he did while he was infected and Tom Vaughn-Lawlor makes for a forceful, if decreasingly complex, villain. Ellen Page is oddly cast here, but she’s got some strong moments, never more so than when Abby confronts Senan about that secret. It’s also fun seeing her cut loose with an axe towards the end of the film, I wish she’d been a bit more involved in the action.

David Freyne does what he can with a limited budget, but those constraints are visible, particularly in how frequently the film cuts away, rather than spend on what could be quite an expensive gore effect. The grimy look isn’t unfamiliar from other recent zombie films, but Freyne finds some memorably bleak shots and, tonally, gives the film an admirable viciousness that goes along with its dystopian outlook. 

The Cured doesn’t break as much new ground as it would like to, but it has capable performances and some new ideas, even if it doesn’t expand on them entirely satisfyingly.