Saturday 23 September 2017

London Film Festival 2017: Shorts

Real Gods Require Blood

This year's London Film Festival is playing well over 200 feature films, but often lost in the shuffle among the coverage of those are the short films that accompany each strand of the festival and which are often goldmines for spotting new talent. I'll be reviewing some of these over the course of the festival and here, to begin with, are four films, each from different strands.

The Artificial Humors [Short film award programme 1]
Dir: Gabriel Abrantes
The premise is kind of irresistible. Claude (Gilda Nomacce) creates a robot, which she names Andy Coughman, designed to test the limits of artificial intelligence. While learning to socialise, Coughman falls for Jo (Amanda Rodarte), a girl from a remote part of the Amazon but on the suggestion of a friend Claude decides to reprogram Coughman, making him the first AI standup comedian, but in the process he loses the memory of his love for Jo.

The Artificial Humors is a rather sweet story, thanks in no small part to the design of Coughman, who is essentially a big eyed, slightly battered looking, floating white sphere. It's a simple piece of design, but surprisingly expressive and it does hit you when Coughman loses his memory and, with it, much of his personality. This is ultimately a film about what makes us human and about the tragedy of Coughman having to surrender a part of his personality, and it's quietly moving in discussing that idea. 

Sadly, the film doesn't have quite the impact it might because Jo is underdeveloped. She speaks little, more often communicating by giggling, at Coughman and at a cute toddler video she watches over and over. It's just not an especially deep portrait, even for a 27 minute film, and that undermines the weight of her connection with Coughman. Overall, there are nice ideas here, but they never quite have the impact you'd like.

Real Gods Require Blood [Short film award programme 2]
Dir: Moin Hussain
I'm not sure any film in this year's festival has a better title than this. The horror inherent in the title only dawns quite slowly. Initially, Alice (Anna Berentzen) gets roped into babysitting her neighbour's young children (Ivy Mattingly and Akali Reid). At first she's simply waiting, expecting someone else to be there within half an hour, but no one comes and young Suzanne keeps saying that something from Hell needs feeding.

In the beginning, Real Gods Require Blood is, in its depiction of a run down neighbourhood and neglected children, probably more realistic than we'd like to think. As the film goes on it becomes more clear that there is something about this house, and perhaps the children in it on a level beyond Alice's initial understanding. What's interesting about the way that director Moin Hussain and writer Tom Benn treat this is that it feels simply like an evolution in the what the film means by horror. There is a horror inherent in the environment these kids are being raised in, a literal monster and a literal hell doesn't seem like that big a step.

Performances are strong all round, but it is Ivy Mattingly who makes the biggest impression, with a slightly detached performance that increasingly makes you wonder exactly what Alice should be afraid of. Combine that with a visual sense that goes from realism to something heightened and quite heavily designed and you have an interesting mix; a grounded drama slowly going to hell. I mean that as a compliment.

Screwball [Laugh]
Dir: Adam Tyler
This British short has a simple premise: teenagers Natalie and Ryan (Savannah Baker and Alhaji Fofana) get together at his house with the intent of losing their virginity to each other. The awkwardness of the moment then gives way to a discussion of consent and expectations.

Screwball is a wonderfully warm, funny, sometimes silly film that nevertheless discusses some important issues, some of which will be familiar to any couple that has gone through this moment together and others of which are quite specifically modern. The film relies completely on its two young leads, happily both of them are excellent, finding a natural awkwardness in the moment but also a clear comfort and chemistry with one another that speaks to their relationship having history without their needing to lay it out in dialogue. They're both very expressive actors, slightly exaggerating some of their expressions in a way that plays into screwball as a genre, but without feeling forced.

Writer/director Adam Tyler's screenplay is packed with good gags from the visual to the verbal. When it comes round to the discussions of consent, of pressure to perform (from themselves and from friends) and of expectations created by media and especially by porn, Screwball can feel a touch earnest, but whenever that happens Tyler has a great joke lined up to defuse that feeling. Honest, intelligent, and very funny, this is a film well worth showing to teenagers, they'll be entertained and take away an important message.

Cubs [Journey]
Dir: Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir
It doesn't surprise me that writer/director Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir has been a film actress in Iceland for nearly 20 years as this, her third film, shows real talent as an actor's director, getting excellent work from three young actresses, each in their first film.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays Per, a single father who just wants his young daughter Lena's (Ragnheiður Ugla Ocares Gautsdóttir) slumber party to go off without a hitch. Unfortunately, due to an accident during a dance performance, Lena's friend Klara (Agla Bríet Gísladóttir) is angry with her and despite Per's best efforts things escalate to bullying and worse.

Lena, Klara and their other friend Astros (Anna Bíbí Wium Axelsdóttir) are about ten and becoming aware of their image and particularly of how it appears to boys. It's this that triggers a nasty moment, seemingly driven by jealousy from Lena towards Klara. In just 17 minutes or so, Cubs deals with how quickly young friendships can sour, as well as with some of the same themes of image and expectation that Screwball explores, though in a different context. This is where the girls performances really shine. There is both a carefree sense to the scenes where Per and the girls play and a noticeable undercurrent of competition between Lena and Klara, which only gets accentuated in the scenes in which the girls are alone.

The innocence of these moments is broken late in the film, in a way I didn't expect. This is just one of the things I liked about the way the film is directed. As well as marshalling some fine performances, Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir makes excellent use of gaze; the way the girls look at each other, at Per and the way he looks at them (which may be partly framed through Lena's point of view). She gives the film an interesting feel; an innocence often undercut by the tension between Lena and Klara, I would love to see how she would handle a feature project.

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