Monday, April 30, 2012

More from Bradford

Juan of the Dead, the first film I saw at the Bradford Film Festival this year, was by far and away the most 'Chopping Mall' themed film of the bunch.  The others were a curious bag of experimental and inventive footage that are certainly worth a mention though.  I seriously doubt any of them are in line for a DVD release any time soon, so they might be a little harder to track down, but they're all worth a watch - and as distribution moves more and more towards digital methods, they may well be available at some point.

First up: Vikingland!

Vikingland's story is a bizarre one (and possibly even more interesting than the film itself!). The blurb is worth pasting from the official website:
Xurxo Chirro has a passion for record keeping and works in the Archives Department of the local television company. During research, he came upon four video tapes that amounted to 16 hours of rushes and were titled ‘Vikingland’. Luis – an expatriate seaman and a migrant like so many of his fellow Galician countrymen – is the hero of this quite peculiar video saga. This is, indeed, no epic tale but a combination of anecdotes and Luis’ persistence. Between learning how to handle the video camera he has just acquired and the long hours working on the ferry-boat which sails from Denmark to Sylt Island in Germany, where he has been hired as a warehouseman, Luis recorded himself without respite for a whole winter. 
So... yes. This is amateur footage shot by a sailor, re-cut by a Galician archive-keeper into something that (supposedly) imitates Moby Dick (Melville is even credited at the end as a writer...). It's long and it's slow but also interesting and occasionally amusing.  Some of the scenes are almost painfully empty of any action (Luis sets the camera up to watch him moving boxes. We watch him moving boxes. That's it) but other moments are more compelling.

The extended Galician-sailors' Christmas dinner is a great scene. The wine-guzzling sailors introduce each dish to the camera and discuss how keen they are to show people what their lives are really like. In this sense it's a pretty fascinating  documentary about the minutae of behind-the-scenes life for the workers in the ship. It is too long, but apart from that it's got a lot to recommend it. Whether we believe Xurxo Chirro's story or not, his project is refreshingly real and democratic. There's no real attempt to make Luis a hero, to explain his history or future, but we're invited into his little cabin and get to see life as he does.

Next up: Moscow Diary.

Here, we're invited to follow Walter Benjamin's footsteps around Moscow, which he visited for six weeks in the 1920s.  It's shot entirely on a mobile phone and, as we wander the streets, parts of Benjamin's diary are read out to accompany the film.  Although he was partly there to have a look at communism in action, the main purpose for his trip was to pursue actress Asja Lacis with who he was apparently madly in love. Given that I only know Benjamin from his writings on aesthetics and technology and his academic reputation, being shown the fragile and human side to him was quite a surprise. His sad reflections on having waited up all evening in the hope that Asja would swing by are sometimes unsettlingly pathetic: it's hard to reconcile the philosopher with the lovesick boy.

Visually, the film's a bit uneven. The mobile-camera works well for the most part - it's held steady and the image is decent, if not great - but that makes Adam Kossoff's choice to occasionally use zoomed in shots puzzling because the low-resolution makes it look a right mess.  I'm pretty sure by now it's not a nostalgia-based illusion: low quality digital footage looks a lot worse than low quality film.

Moscow Diary  was paired with another mid-length film about Walter Benjamin (you wait ages for a film about Benjamin and then two come along at once...) : Les Anges de Port-Bou (The Angels of Portbou)

In this one, Parisian (?) Benjamin-obsessive Séraphin comes out by train to the border with Spain to recreate Benjamin's last journey, fleeing France for what he hoped would be safety in Spain, before eventually killing himself in the Spanish town of Portbou.

Instead of his friend, who's supposed to be walking with him, he's met by his friend's sister, Gabrielle, who Séraphin reluctantly allows to accompany him across the hills.  Their walk ambles between topics, taking in Benjamin's history, the lives of people in the region and the appeal of mystery amongst other things. It's a gently told story with plenty left open to interpretation but it's neatly done, looks beautiful and just flies by. I'd definitely be keen to see more by the director Vladimir Léon.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Juan of the Dead

A few months ago, towards the end of last year, the Leeds International Film Festival announced a rather exciting looking UK premiere in the shape of the world's first Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead. Sadly, given that I was volunteering at the time (and watching as many films as I could cope with...) I missed it. Given that foreign cult films are sometimes ridiculously slow to appear on DVD here in the UK, I thought I'd missed it altogether. So it was a pretty nice surprise to see the fabulous Bradford Film Festival schedule it as part of their After Dark strand of horror films this year.

As a lover of many things Spanish/LatinAmerican and all things Zombie, perhaps I was somewhat determined to enjoy this. Even so, sometimes that hyped excitement is the surest way to guarantee disappointment. After all, when you're looking forward to a film that much it's going to be hard for it to meet expectations (this is also a worry of mine about Iron Sky, the much-hyped Nazis-on-the-moon adventure...). Thankfully, JotD offered no such disappointment. It was great fun from start to finish.

Juan is a tongue-in-cheek zombie killing rampage with plenty of laughs, some fun gore and not a lot in the way of horror. It's decidedly more in the Dead Snow and Shaun of the Dead lines than Dawn of the Dead or other more (ahem) 'serious' zombie films - this was probably a sensible choice: straight-faced zombie horror can be pretty hard to pull off, especially with a comparatively inexperienced cast (French suburban zombie masterpiece La Horde shows how well it can be done though!). Anyway, Juan sensibly balances laughs and splatter, with the obligatory bit of soul-searching and character improvement.

The basic premise is left beautifully stark. Havana is overrun with zombies. Juan and friends are trying to survive. That's about all there is to it. Like many of the classics they don't waste much time on life-before-zombies and they certainly don't bother explaining where the zombies come from - although the TV reporter blames American imperialists, a neat joke on both Cuban news/propaganda and the (modern) zombie's links to American consumerism. For the most part it just throws us into the middle of the fray as the Juan, his estranged daughter, his best friend and a couple of others start bashing, slashing, smashing and splattering zombies.

It's not perfect. But who really expects perfection from a zombie flick? The plot is essentially pretty episodic: Juan and friends go to one place, kill zombies. Another place, kill zombies. Go home. Go out. Kill Zombies. Etc. etc. Luckily it's all carried out with such obvious enthusiasm that it never really gets boring. It's slightly spoiled by some astonishingly crappy CGI though. Before computer graphics, designers had to find a convincing way to show something or just not show it. If only this were still true. Shots like a helicopter smashing into Cuban government buildings were obviously prohibitively expensive to shoot properly so would have been better left out entirely. Instead the computer generated helicopter just looks cheap.

The gore's good though! Some nice splatters, severed limbs and oozing wounds show just what fun you can have with real physical special effects. And, even if it is episodic, some of the episodes are so damn good that you can forgive them entirely: one scene sees the heroes naked, unarmed and handcuffed to a zombie in the back of a van... There are lots of wry jokes at the Cuban regime and it's claims - the zombies are referred to as dissidents throughout - and one of the characters carries both a Cuban and a US flag to wave depending on who wins. It's also suitably cavalier with its characters: several central characters meet gruesome ends and, at the beginning at least, the gang seem to accidentally kill as many humans as they do zombies (accidentally shooting an old lady with a harpoon...).

Overall, it's the enthusiasm that holds this film together. It's made by people clearly enjoying the chance to make the first Cuban zombie film and their enthusiasm is infectious. Juan is somewhat uneven but so are most zombie films. It's generally a lot of fun.

(The Bradford Film Festival is screening it again on Sunday 22nd and the film will get a DVD release on 4th June. Hurrah!)