We’re attending the Leeds International Film Festival 2020, which – thanks to the fantastic LIFF online player – promises another year of diverse films and shorts across a variety of genres, mediums, and topics, even as we’re all socially distancing. Here are our highlights from week two as reviewer Chris Haigh, selects from the festival’s Fanomenon programme, the Cinema Versa series, and the Leeds Young Film Festival respectively.
Dune Drifter (2020)
A sci-fi offering from director Marc Price, Dune Drifter follows a squadron of space cadets in a far-flung future where Earth has been devastated by a series of attacks by an alien race (never identified or specified) and humanity has rallied a counter attack around a planet called Erebus. Our platoon, ostensibly monikered ‘Greys’, are initially sent to act as backup and assistance with clear up once the fight has been won; however, they soon arrive to a scene of conflict, and we follow a single starfighter as it crash lands on Erebus and its occupants are forced into a battle for survival.
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Price’s premise isn’t the most original perhaps, but he does well to mine gold from it, utilising a coterie of solid performances from the Grey squadron in the film’s first half-hour, including Asher Green and Michael Geary’s memorable, comic turns, Linda Louise Doum as a more cool and collected soldier, and Daisy Aitkens as a heroic but imperiled gunner. Leading this all is pilot Adler, played by Phoebe Sparrow, who is forced to land her damaged ship and attempt to rescue her badly-injured teammate (Aitkens), provide safety for the two, engineer a way off the barren Erebus, and deal with the threat of ‘one of them’, a humanoid alien soldier who has his eyes on Adler’s ship so he can make his own way off. Sparrow is suitably engaging as Adler, injecting what could be a cardboard protagonist with enough human subtleties and touches that she feels almost real, a soldier out of her depth but unwilling to give into despair and defeat just yet.
It’s clear that Dune Drifter is very keen in showing its love for its science-fiction forebears – one can easily pick out the helmets as an ode to Pacific Rim and the Halo games, and the brightly-coloured hyperspace jumps as a tip towards Star Wars and Doctor Who‘s more Technicolour vaults into the heart of deep space – and it’s therefore a bit of a shame when the CGI on display pulls you right out of the carefully-constructed atmosphere, with computer-generated fighters and laser beams that would have looked a bit cheap on late nineties’ television. Fortunately, however, once this is ditched in favour of practical effects, Dune Drifter shines with its naturalistic desert setting providing atmosphere and tension to the rest of the film, as well as its commitment to world-building and visuals which are to be commended.
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Some cheesy visuals towards the final third of the film aside (a rather great piece of fight choreography between Adler and her nemesis is marred with the odd choice of zoom-ins, harkening back to the karate-chop fights of sixties’ action television and not in a complimentary way), Dune Drifter functions and performs well as a piece of minimalist, survivalist cinema that could function just as well as a wartime thriller as a sci-fi adventure and a solid calling card for Price, should any of the bigger sci-fi franchises come knocking.
The Columnist (2019)
Hailing from Belgium, The Columnist is a piece of pitch-black satirical comedy with a streak of horror running through its veins. Set in the modern-day, it follows the life of Femke, a columnist and writer who regularly makes television appearances and attracts ire for doing so, often in the form of vitriolic takedowns onn social media posts, lambasting her and making her life an uncomfortable place to be. With sparring colleagues, an unsympathetic book editor, and a teen daughter hellbent on rebellion in the name of free speech, it’s no wonder that Femke’s cool resolve starts to slip and she turns to more murderous means to exact revenge.
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The Columnist is helmed by a glowing central performance from Katja Herbers (who also shines on the small screen in the criminally-underrated religious procedural horror Evil) who makes Femke a sympathetic but remote presence, a protagonist who wants to be able to express her views and to be treated with respect, not unlike her precocious daughter (played by Claire Porro). It’s once the film kicks into high gear, as Femke decides to start attacking her trolls literally – tossing one from a rooftop and frying another alive in a bathtub thanks to a nearby laptop in beats of toe-curling violence – that the film starts to really blend its slick mixture of comedy and horror, blending shadow-dark laughs with genuine pathos as Femke’s mental state veers from elation and creative freedom following a kill, to breaking down in her car following a particularly lengthy battle with a troll. It’s a testament to Herbers’ game turn that it never feels shlocky or overdone; it feels startlingly real and grounded, as if one could imagine Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan snapping and picking up a frying pan or a shotgun and taking to the streets Falling Down-style.
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Its concept is a shot of Black Mirror (see ‘Hated in the Nation’ minus the flying drones) and a glug of Hot Fuzz‘s darkly comic commentary on people wanting to correct the world in the way they see fit, even at the cost of real human lives. Ultimately it proves more serious than that same comedic vein as the finale sees Femke spiral out of control, leading to a shocking, tense showdown, and a haunting final image that highlights the power of perception and social media, of saying one thing and doing another, a parable for the modern age which is well worth a watch with your phone away on the other side of the room.
Kubrick by Kubrick (2020)
A love letter to one of the biggest and most venerated film directors of all time, Kubrick by Kubrick is the latest in a lineage of documentaries that explore the mastery of Kubrick‘s work through various lenses – through critics, through friends, through collaborators, and ultimately through the man himself, building into a paean to Stanley Kubrick’s works and his unique, laser-focused vision of how to tell stories on a visual medium, and how to push these storytelling boundaries further with each successive film. It’s not hard to compare this film against something like Room 237, a meta-documentary that focused on Kubrick fans deciphering the ‘meaning’ behind The Shining, with vastly-different but equally-passionate ideas of the film’s true nature; Kubrick by Kubrick, however, is more interested in the end product, rather than the unknown idea beneath it all.
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Running at a positively-taut 73 minutes, director Gregory Monro – he of the previous documentaries on the likes of Calamity Jane, Jerry Lewis, and Toulouse-Lautrec – speeds zippily through the Kubrick canon, pulling from a variety of resources to spin a narrative of Kubrick as visionary and maestro. The interviews with cast and collaborators are always interesting and enjoyable and the stories that Monro introduces to the viewer as part of his overarching story are satisfying and well-placed – from the construction of the War Room in Dr Strangelove, to the specific lighting in the bucolic Barry Lyndon, Monro makes sure to reiterate that Kubrick’s artistry always had a place and a specific purpose.
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The film manages to utilise some neat visual tricks to help engage the viewer – the opening salvos of the film, a series of vox pops, are encased within the gleaming white television and matching suite at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, these same television sets popping throughout, while some of the sets in his iconic films drift by in miniature, frozen in time like forgotten dollhouses that Kubrick once manipulated. It’s a sympathetic and engaging look at a beloved and well-regarded auteur, and if it glosses over some of his colder and more unlikable personality traits in favour of cuter family home videos and admiring interview bites, it’s in the service of a tribute to a behemoth of a director, one whose shadow still lies heavy over the film world today and for good reason.
The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (2019)
A dazzling triumph of animation and storytelling, this elegant and affecting French-language adaptation of Dino Buzzati’s 1945 tale from director Lorenzo Mattotti, sees travelling father-and-daughter double-act Gedeone and Almerina stumble across a gigantic slumbering bear in a series of caverns and decide to perform for him (in true Shakespearean-style) the story of the infamous invasion of Sicily by an ursine army. However, when their story is done, the bear decides to tell them what happened after their version of the tale occurred, changing everything that the pair know about their country.
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An intriguing and fun concept, The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily manages to be that rare film, let alone animated film, that proves a change of tone partway through a film can be spectacular, if pulled off correctly. This isn’t to say that the sprightly, bright vibe of the film’s first half, replete with a narrative of the bear-king Leonce trying to track down his bear-napped cub Tonio and a villain of arch, skyscraper-high campness in the Grand Duke, fades away; far from it, there remains throughout the film a deep vein of joy and wonder. The second half, however, taps into the aftermath of such grand climaxes – what happens after happily ever after? – with the older bear in the cavern providing the story of how corruption and greed can fill the most innocent of hearts, how redemption can be gained and lost in equal measure, and how all dreams, especially the sweetest ones, must come to an end. It’s a truly bittersweet story that still manages to keep a tone of levity and hopefulness about it, anchored by the warm love between Gedeone and Almerina and the care and attention taken to make the characters, human or ursine, understandable.
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Visually the film is one of the most delightful and satisfying animations of recent years, managing to blend clean lines and a warm, energetic colour palette into something that manages to be calm and lively in equal measure, and something that could populate the games or children’s media market for quite some time. This visual style helps translate some of the film’s inherent whimsy and silliness – seeing ghosts soar and dip like starlings through the sky or seeing an entire army magically transformed into hot air balloons could have been a challenge, but the film remains a treat for the eyes as well as the soul, one that should be recommended far and wide for any parent or child, no matter their actual age, and one that this reviewer will be sure to rewatch as soon as possible.
This concludes’ Chris’ coverage of this year’s Leeds International Film Festival, which has been a rousing success. Let us know in the comments what you think about the festival’s films, and if there are any others you would recommend!