Bellflower (Evan Glodell, USA, 2011) * * * * *


Two young men question their value in a soulless society, tire of playing it safe and feel emasculated by failed relationships- and so resort to a subculture of alter-egos, violence, and self-destruction. But perhaps what Fight Club was missing was a couple of dragsters converted into  fully-functioning flamethrowers…

Best friends Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Durden  Dawson) devote their lives to constructing weaponized muscle cars in preparation for an imminent apocalypse. But their current project, the ‘Mother Medusa’, is pushed to the back-burner upon the arrival of the enigmatic Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Soon the two friends are propelled into a world of red- hot envy, engines and vengeance. Part –road movie, part- buddy movie, part-romance, part-revenge. Beautiful, brutal and bruised, but just what is Bellflower? It’s a question you’ll still be asking as you stagger, hungover, back into the daylight and drudgery of the real world. There is nothing quite like it, with its homage to the cars-and-chaos action films of the ‘80s (with Mad Max being an explicit muse) proudly displayed like a hood ornament. Throw in grindhouse, dystopia and this year’s neo- noir throwback, Drive and we’re ready to hit the road.

At first, our slacker mechanics are your typical best buds headed for both California and the big time (although whether their peppering every sentence with a ‘dude’ or ‘totally’ is endearing or enraging is a matter of opinion) and the invitation for the viewer to share their small-town inertia is impossible to resist.  But, riding shotgun with uncertainty on the open road, it’s a shock just how quickly, and violently, things escalate.  Everything burns. Everything; as fire wipes the slate clean, the  promises, the past, the photographs. Everything burns. And it’s precisely this use of fire- the most primal of instincts, destructive but purifying- that asserts the men’s masculinity. Rather than scream and shout, they let loose with home-made flame-throwers  and blast their frustrations and frailties into the cold desert sky.  They are not leaders, just two new additions to a motley crew of loose wires and short fuses; and you just know that when the time comes, it’s gonna be explosive.

For writer/director/actor Glodell, following the well- worn path of self-sacrifice meant selling all his personal belongings and moving into an abandoned wing of an office building.  It also meant custom-building his own camera, infusing each shot with a hallucinatory halo – like gazing through a gas leak.  After a raft of music videos and shorts to his name, his feature-length directorial debut is sure to propel him to a wider audience. And Jonathan Keevil’s superbly sombre acoustic soundtrack  stings and soothes like a swig of whisky.

There are minor flaws, mere scratches in the paintwork; a lull in the second act is borne from a muddled montage of unconstrained aggression and a continuity error shows characters driving home, despite having just swapped their car for a bike in a previous scene.  But rarely has a film ended on such a dangerous, dizzying high. Woodrow’s plan for their future melts into an extended fantasy sequence; a sort of petrolhead ‘Project Mayhem’ to ensure their posterity – including  the most ostentatious of alter egos and, in probably the film’s most striking scene, a mushroom cloud roaring on the horizon. You can practically smell the flames licking away at ‘Mother Medusa’, awaiting rebirth as the fieriest of Phoenixes.

©D.Wakefield, 2011


Juan de los Muertos/ Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués, Cuba, 2011) * * *


Did anyone see that coming? That the first independent film to come out of Cuba in fifty years is a zombie comedy- the country’s first celluloid take on the undead- is certainly a surprise. That it wears its nationality on its armless sleeve is less so. And while we’re mercifully relieved of the zombie as an exhausted metaphor for traditionalism, we may need to hold our popcorn in one hand and a history book in another.

Not quite parody, but far from earnest, Juan… is the latest in a line of recent zombie films that believe that if we’re not screaming with laughter, we should just be screaming. Pitched somewherebetween Planet Terror and (somewhat predictably) Shaun of the Dead, we have a gross-out comedy that just happens to coincide with an outbreak of flesh-eating monsters. As is becoming de rigeur (mortis), the cause of the outbreak is never fully explained. It just is, like a thunderstorm or a Wednesday.

Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) is an opportunist slacker, too lazy or stupid to learn from his mistakes. His best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) is a grotesquely chauvinistic oaf, who, when talk of a US remake is bandied about, must give Jonah Hill burning ears. As a double act, they’re not the most likeable of heroes but Brugués admits they’re ‘‘very Cuban characters’’- surely the first nail of many in the coffin of the Havana Tourist Board. The plot is paper-thin, the characters are stereotyped and the dialogue is laughable: it should be a runaway success. And if viewed as a series of gory, mildly amusing set-pieces, then it surpasses the standard zombie fare. Rather like a similar scene in Shaun of the Dead, our protagonist strolls down his street while pandemonium breaks out all around him. Cars crash and explode, green arms lunge out from all directions and bystanders are pounced upon like a buffet. The special effects and make-up are impressive and a late mass-decapitation sequence is marvellously OTT. And the fact that the outbreak prompts Juan and his cronies to run their own extermination company (strapline: ‘‘We kill your beloved ones’’) provides a strong middle act.

But blending guts, brains and hearts is indeed a messy job, and the mixture of affability with amorality is an uncomfortable one. While the latter provides some of the film’s darkest and best gags (such as Lazaro refusing to help a disabled victim so that he can steal his wheelchair to transport crates of beer), there’s an undercurrent of homophobia which rears its ugly head a couple of times.  Juan’s sudden responsibility for his estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) is perhaps his last strand of decency- but is waved about like a winning lottery ticket before a finale that aims for touching but lands on trying.

Come to think of it, Juan… may be one of the rare exports immune to the dreaded US remake. How could a non-Cuban mimic the sense of identity and history, the rock of censorship only just being overturned? Brugués has created a socio-political allegory with plenty of teeth…but too much tongue.  As the first zombies shuffle into the street, the TV news informs the nation that they are ‘dissidents’, a nice touch that says as much about the media as the monsters. But from there on the social commentary becomes a little heavy-handed; with ex Sara (Blanca Rosa Blanco) telling Juan ‘‘You’re like this country. You say you’ve changed but you’re still the same’’ and the sight gag of your typical apathetic Cuban being mistaken for a zombie is made not once but three times. Sadly, it does not improve upon reanimation.

A glossy, gory but altogether grounded debut; let’s hope Brugués has dismissed the notion of a vampire film- pitching the once-buried  revolution sucking the life out of modern Cuba.


Magic Trip (Alex Gibney/Alison Ellwood, USA, 2011) * * * *


Imagine being a spectator at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Spacecraft, time capsules, travelators and ‘concept cars’ point to a future, a near future, of revolutionary new heights in human discovery. Now imagine being a spectator at the 1964 New York World’s Fair while tweaked off your proverbials. Such is the fate of Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters, a ragtag collection of counterculture icons, whose week-long cross-country road trip in and out of consciousness has culminated at this most buzzing of media beehives. They have seen the future and it is boring.

Ken’s fellow chemical cosmonauts are Jack Kerouac, the freshly famous all-American novelist; Neal Cassady, the Beat figurehead and inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road as well as a handpicked selection of acolytes, literary groupies and general ne’er-do-wells with such madcap monikers as Mal Function, Gretchen Fetchen and Stark Naked. And not forgetting the star of the show, The Magic Bus, a converted schoolbus christened ‘Further’ and painted in kaleidoscopic tie-dyed colours. The other passenger, the one that everyone can’t keep their hands off and the one that transcribes the journey into legend, goes by the name of LSD.

With Neal in the driver’s seat, gobbling handfuls of speed to stay awake and jabber a trail-of-consciousness running commentary, the bus rattles its way across America like a medicine cabinet on wheels. The risk of an accident seems incomprehensible: they’re too young, too fun and too famous for anything bad to happen to them. This is a place where people don’t die; they just fall off the wagon (or bus, as it may be) and return to decent society. This is a place where an impromptu instrumental in the forest – fuelled by the ol’ lysergic, of course- is just an everyday occurrence. As is recruiting Allen Ginsberg halfway across the trip and then dropping by (and dropping out at) Timothy Leary’s estate where, incredibly, they find their perennial partying too much for the Harvard psychologist-turned-psychedelic.

Like most people of his generation, Kesey experimented with LSD at university. But what makes him such a unique case is that he was a government-endorsed guinea pig, willing to trial the ‘wonder drug’ for psychiatric research. The recording of this experiment is played here, with Kesey talking through his symptoms. It’s certainly enlightening, with such gems as ‘‘It’s a quarter to one and I’m high outta my mind’’ and ‘‘It’s all hexagons…hexagons, pentagons and mummies’’. Seconds later, he believes the tape recorder squatting before him has morphed into a giant toad…

Gibney and Ellwood spent six years working through Ken’s original, but unfinished, footage in an attempt to restore sound and picture quality-  and their efforts have paid off spectacularly. The whirring, sun-splashed haziness of the Super- 8 places you right in the fug of the Sixties and makes you nostalgic for a time you’ve only read about. With an unbelievable cast of loonies and luminaries, Magic Trip is the document of the drug-addled bus trip that entered the annals of history, literature and mythology as the Electric Kool- Aid Acid Test. Suddenly the spacecraft and time capsules of the future don’t seem so far away.

©D.Wakefield, 2011

Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson (Trish Dolman, Canada, 2011) * * *


Don’t call him Ishmael. For almost forty years, Watson has campaigned against whale  hunting, put himself in the poachers’ firing line,  become something of a cause célèbre in the environmentalist world and, in a coup most PR agents would kill for, earned a reputation as the man ‘too radical for Greenpeace.’

With his unimposing stature and white hair and beard, he somewhat resembles a George Lucas figure. But while conversational and compassionate, he is not without enemies. While most campaigners arm themselves with a placard and a catchy slogan, Watson stomps all over peaceful protest. We first see him and his Farley Mowat crew on the Atlantic, politely but forcefully instructing a nearby whaling ship to leave. They refuse, so Watson cranks it up to Step Two. In an insanely dramatic act of bravado (and it’s a testament to either his persistence or his pride that this isn’t an apparent ‘show for the cameras’) he pipes Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ over the intercom- blaring out into the high seas- and sets course to attack. Despite the size difference of the two ships, and the uneasy thought that a hunting ship is most likely heavily armed, Watson rams against the Goliath and forces it to retreat. It’s an incredibly risky manoeuvre- and certainly illegal- but Watson has bigger fish to fry. This is Apocalypse Narwhal.

The term ‘eco-pirate’ is worn like a badge of honour; just another accolade to a man who calls himself a ‘hero’. His daughter Lani has inherited his giddy passion and her enthusing to camera about the cause, her pride and her ambition to die while ‘in action’ is a tad worrying. His third wife confesses that her first words to her future-husband were, ‘‘Hi, my name is Allison Lance and I want to marry you’’. Just what is it that compels people- not just his family but hundreds of others, too-  to follow this ‘Pied Piper’ (in Allison’s words) to a life of sea-bound vigilantism? As Dolman is granted access to the captain’s quarters, we discover just what drives the ‘bad boy of the Canadian conservation movement’ to such unique measures.

His first foray into campaigning was undeniably life-changing, as he and fellow crewmember Peter Garrett relate how their inaugural protest- against the harpooning of baby whales- presented them first-hand with the horrors of bloodsport. As Watson believes looking into the eye of a dying whale brought about a psychic connection, ‘‘a look of understanding’’, Garrett fills in the graphic details. And graphic they certainly are. It goes without saying that an audience of conservationists would be livid enough without having to witness the abhorrent sight of blue seas tuning red, or learn how the cleansing deck earned its euphemism.

While a grasp of the backstory is crucial to a documentary such as this- positioning us in a very specific time and place- the unabridged history of Greenpeace is an unnecessary sidetrack. The various talking heads explain Watson’s unanimous ‘sacking’ from the movement (their  attempts to disgrace him backfiring as he becomes a world-renowned iconoclast) but there’s no bad blood. Except from perhaps Allison, who has a tragic afterthought to counter the preceding hour of hagiography.

As the camera crew prepares to leave, another arrives; as Animal Planet have commissioned a seven-part show titled  Whale Wars, exposing Watson to a new generation of eco-groupies. And, after the scrapping of his beloved Farley Mowat, the plan to hold a fundraiser proves fruitful; with a donation from Anthony Kiedis, who follows suit and professes his love for Watson. The new craft is unlikely to pass unrecognised, resembling as it does the Batmobile as redesigned by H.R Geiger.

While his ego may be as pointed as a harpoon, his habit of painting onto his ship the names of those he has sunk, as though collecting scalps, is oddly thrilling- and it’s difficult to dislike anyone who has committed their life to such a cause. As long as Japan has the authority to pursue commercial whaling on the grounds of ‘research’ (exploiting a much-contested loophole is one thing, but having the word emblazoned on the side of their boats only adds insult to injury), Watson will be there.

© D.Wakefield,2011

World Animation Competition 2 (Various directors, 2010- 2011)


Picking up where the first Competition left off, and with the same high standard still very much on show, The Boy in the Bubble ( Kealan O’ Rourke, Ireland, 2011, ****) is an enchanting potion of magic and melancholia; perhaps the closest we’ll get to Tim Burton’s take on Harry Potter. When Rupert- a near-facsimile of Burton’s Vincent– falls in love with a girl at school, he’ll try anything to catch her attention. Unfortunately, the magic spells to which he turns have a habit of complicating matters…  A lustrous fairy tale narrated by none other than Snape himself, Alan Rickman.

Don’t Tell Santa You’re Jewish  ( Jody Kramer, Canada, 2010, ***), as the title pithily puts it, tells the story of a young girl afraid to visit Santa at the mall in case he discovers she is Jewish. A shaky, childlike cartoon that wouldn’t be out of place on Sesame Street. Peanuts , but kosher.

366 Days ( Johannes Schiehsl, Germany, 2011 *****) is the most poignant 3D tale since Up. As Patrick waits in traffic, the lights of a passing ambulance act as a literal flashback to his year of national service; where we see that the biggest problem facing the elderly patients is loneliness. Its medical red- and-white colour scheme and superb storytelling provide tragedy, comedy, perfectly realised characters and a potentially life-saving use for classical music- allcrammed into twelve minutes.

And while our hearts are still warmed, we have the stop-motion Bottle  (Kirsten Lepore, USA, 2010, ****). Imagine Romeo and Juliet as performed by a pile of sand and a mound of snow- separated by the ocean between them. They send love letters via bottle; a snatch of seaweed and a scoopful of shells, before, finally, they can be apart no more.

Sorrow is the stock in trade for Don Justino de Neve ( Daisy Jacobs, UK, 2011, ****), as the subject of Murillo’s  painting is reimagined as a louche and lethal lothario. He introduces himself as ‘‘the villain of the piece… not Mills and Boon, but James Bond’’- and his word is not enough. We see him breaking hearts without breaking a sweat, ‘‘irresistible to women with low self-esteem’’. An amusing and well-crafted cartoon character assassination.

Like a spoof Twilight Zone episode comes Out of Erasers  (Erik Rosenlund, Denmark/Sweden, 2011 **), an initially tense but  altogether tenuous noir based around the sudden disappearance of the world’s erasers. How else to fend off the strange scribbles that are spreading like a virus? Despite its comic potential, it’s difficult to maintain disbelief after fifteen minutes. Perhaps two-thirds of its running time would’ve benefited from the other end of a pencil.

Alimation  (Alexandre Dubosc, France, 2011 *** ) is a neat concept that ever so slightly outstays its welcome. Peering through a zoopraxiscope, a series of themed cakes are essentially brought to life by the jittery movements of their respective decorations. Imagine a rollercoaster zooming past a delicatessen window. Fast, frenzied but equally as nauseating.

Given the scale of invention and illumination on show in Luminaris  ( Juan Pablo Zaramella, Argentina, 2011, *****), the setting of an electric bulb factory  seems perfectly fitting. Using real actors and stop-motion objects, here’s a story of revenge and romance in a dimly-lit dystopia. Rather like our protagonists in their Gondry-inspired getaway, it’s impossible not to be lifted.      

Battenberg  (Stewart Comrie, UK, 2010, ****)  is a curious slice of the macabre. Combining the mechanical mistrust of the Quay Brothers with claustrophobic horror, it’s a film that lures you into the unknown. In a taxidermist’s take on the Spider and the Fly, a squirrel invites a magpie to tea. Although this sounds innocent enough, there’s something very unnerving about the shadowy jars, the crooked shelves, the shimmering knives. And then there’s the guest book with no recorded departures… Magpie declines the offer (well, he’s already stuffed) but there’s a horrible red glint in Squirrel’s eye that suggests escape is not an option. A deeply disturbing diorama- not least due to the house servants, who look like chicken nuggets but caw like seagulls. Whatever they are, they should be culled immediately.

And whatever Hello Bambi  ( Faiyaz Jafri, USA, 2011, ****) is all about I have no idea, but I loved every surreal minute. The safest bet is to say that somewhere along the line, Snow White has taken a bite from a poisoned apple and is therefore en route to hospital. Just what sights appear along the way, however, can only be described as Andy Warhol’s hookah hallucination. A woman sits upon a mushroom, her face concealed by a Darth Vader mask. A Delorean flies through cyberspace. A runaway train zooms through a kaleidoscopic tunnel.  Everything has an impossibly shiny, hermetically sealed plastic veneer and is soundtracked (or as Jafri himself puts it, ‘respectfully assaulted’) by a techno version of Chopin’s Funeral March. It’s all painfully postmodern with absolutely nothing to say. Subtle it ain’t, but fun you betcha.

Fun is something deliberately omitted from the agenda of The Gloaming (Nicolas Schmerkin, France, 2010 ****); which, rather like the Big Bang off its meds, throws together live action, CGI and good old-fashioned animation to form an insanely bleak creation myth. A man wandering the desert stumbles upon a Flubber-like substance. Soon it grows, and sprouts life. Next, it’s almost destroyed. Should he intervene? Although this topic has been explored before (and with particular precision in a Futurama episode), there is still much to consider here. The history of the Earth- from dinosaur to dystopia- is covered with maximum speed and minimum diplomacy. For the most part, such nihilism suits the work perfectly but the final few minutes spin out of control. The political jabs are a little heavy- handed and the vision of factories  spewing out babies- each born and branded with a barcode- is something of a Sixth Form indulgence.

And what to say about La Détente (Pierre Ducos/Bey Bertrand, France, 2011, *****), other than to declare it the greatest war film Pixar never made? A soldier lies in a trench, paralyzed by fear. The camera then swoops inside his mind to uncover a war fought by toys, a multi-coloured melee of painted dolls and plastic soldiers. A visual onslaught somewhere between Speed Racer and Saving Private Ryan, all without showing a single drop of blood.Dazzling, disarming but also destructive, each frame rumbles with airstrikes, marches or exploding mines. It’s Hell through Hamley’s window. But before we get too cosy in this cotton-wool clad conflict, we’re hurled back to the frontline with a reveal that hammers the point home; right between the eyes.    


World Animation Competition 1 (Various directors, 2010-2011)


While the competition has become something of an annual treat, picking a winner from this year’s selection is surely an unenviable task.   Starting proceedings is the strange but stylish Bird Boy (Pedro Rivero/Alberto Vazquez, Spain, 2010 ****), a story of love, identity and isolation. A city populated by ‘Maus’-inspired cartoon mice live in fear of the titular tearaway, a cape-wearing loner with cavernous smudges for eyes. But inquisitive Dinky, herself alone in the school playground, soon discovers that he is simply misunderstood. Despite its child-friendly aesthetic and tone, there are some decidedly adult traces (pet dogs wearing gimp masks, anyone?) that draw to a spectacularly poignant, post-apocalyptic finale.

Deserved multi-award winner Something Left, Something Taken (Ru Kuwahata /Max Porter, USA, 2010 *****) is a fuzzy-felt, stop-motion masterpiece. Ru and Max (yup), a couple holidaying in San Francisco, believe that they may have unwittingly accepted a taxi ride from the Zodiac Killer. Lucky for them, Max is a true-crime aficionado and his plan fires them onto a darkly humorous digression on forensic science- presented in Sesame Street– style edutainment. Fascinating, funny and full of lessons you hope you’ll never need.

The Lady Paranorma (Vincent Marcone, Canada, 2010 ****) is a strikingly beautiful, sepia-stained CGI dream (or maybe nightmare). Paranorma is an eccentric, a social outcast, a woman haunted by the calls of the dead. As the spirits beckon her, their holes for eyes and fire for hair, she finds herself torn between the two worlds. A Gothic fairy tale with a twist, narrated by Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy.

Night Sounds (Jacob Stålhammar, Sweden, 2011 ***) posits a sleepless child’s anxieties about the outside world with a mixture of cats, eyeballs and pianos- all served à la Saul Bass. The piano soundtrack and minimalist graphics evoke the whodunits of the ‘60s, but when the ‘culprit’ here is revealed, it’s a one-note joke. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll be screaming out for a recent web meme mash-up.

And once you’ve seen A Morning Stroll (Grant Orchard, UK, 2010 *****) the first thing you’ll want to do is watch it all over again. In the director’s words,‘‘ [b]asically it’s like a three part riff on “Why did the chicken cross the road?”’’ but stretched over a century, teeming with ideas and with some of the most spectacular 2D/3D effects ever seen. Imagine a simple stick-drawing New Yorker sketch morphing into the bouncy, colourful charm of a Fanta advert. And then imagine the bleakest future possible. Six minutes of satire, slapstick, pathos and horror really isn’t long enough.

Perhaps being the first film ever to take inspiration from the word ‘etoecology’, (Notes on) Biology ( Danny Madden, USA, 2011 ****) is a stop-frame fantasy filmed from the pages of a schoolbook. A student, bored with his teacher’s droning, doodles a flying robot elephant and sits back in disbelief as it takes over the book, the room and, ultimately, the world.

Onto more sombre stuff, now, with Mein Lieber Schwan (Matthew Robins, UK, 2011 ***), a five-minute contemplation of lost love commissioned by Opera North Projects. Using the last act of Wagner’s Lohengrin as a starting point, Robins’ mix of puppetry and stop-motion, hope and despair is  Black Swan on a (shoe)string.

In a similar vein comes the grandiose Tchaikovsky (Barry Purves, UK, 2011 ****), a mini-opera dedicated to the man himself- who appears as a puppet trapped in a picture frame of his own memories. As the music swells and his life is projected around him- the wonders, the woes, the women- he falls into the confetti of snow or bows to an invisible audience.  Recalling the works of Michel Gondry, it is a powerful tale, simply told.    

Reckon you could encapsulate life in the English countryside in only 70 seconds? In Arts and Crafts Spectacular (Sébastian Wolf/Ian Ritterskamp, Germany, 2011 ***) Gilbert and George’s eventful trip to Devon plays as voiceover while stop-motion models reenact their whistle-stop tour of 21st century country living. While there is a point to the story, the time consumed in creating and filming seems a tad fruitless for such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it finale.

From conceptual art to minimalism with Modern No 2 (Mirai Mizue, Japan, 2011 *), the only dud in the group. Two-tone blocks and houndstooth patterns ‘dance’ to a repetitive beat, sometimes creating symmetrical and kaleidoscopic new shapes- like Escher’s impossible staircases- and sometimes not.

If only The Wonder Hospital (Beomsik Shimbe Shim, USA, 2010 *****) were a feature-length film. Or, better, a theme park. For there is truly nothing like this; except for perhaps the most unsettling RPG or the most vivid of nightmares. Part supernatural horror, part surreal comedy (as well as homage to The Wizard of Oz), the story of a young woman’s desire for physical perfection takes one decidedly twisted turn after another. Clever, curious but always compelling, the near-abandoned hospital provides a backdrop for all manner of hallucinations, as well as a timely study of that aesthetic unnecessity 3D-  the colours red and green spilling like neon paint in almost every shot. Worth checking in, just make sure you know your way out.

To Die By Your Side (Spike Jonze/Simon Cahn, France, 2011 ****) is a most peculiar love story literally torn from the pages of classic literature. When romance blossoms between a skeleton (stepping off the cover of Macbeth, sword stuck through his side) and a woman emerging unscathed from Dracula’s grasp, it can only end in tears. Inventive, charming and a little rude- not to mention a soundtrack by Karen O- there is more to enjoy in six minutes here than in the entire running time of, say, their previous film collaboration.

But shooting all competition down in flames comes the ultra-fast, ultra-violent and ultra-stylish Paths of Hate (Damian Nenow, Poland, 2010, *****), the tale of two fighter jets locked into eternal combat. Like a graphic novel brought gloriously to life, we are thrust into the heart of a wildly destructive dogfight; blood, smoke and bullets flying in all directions. It’s fast, it’s bright, it’s noisy and it’s terrifying. Even as the battered aircraft plummet to the ground, this war is far from over… The most intense- and exhilarating- ten minutes of animation I have ever seen.

© D.Wakefield, 2011

Finisterrae (Sergio Caballero, Spain, 2010) * *


Two ghosts, tired of living in limbo, embark on the Way of Saint James, traversing from Camino de Santiago to Finisterre, (‘the end of the world’) in the hopes of returning to their human states. Despite the rather bombastic premise, its execution is decidedly more modest: there are no pretences about the fact that this particular pilgrimage will be performed by two men wearing white sheets with stickers for eyes.

As their journey progresses (and digresses) at a laborious rate, the viewer may indeed be wondering what they’ve let themselves in for. It’s not ‘about’ anything; more a flight of fancy that struggles to leave the ground. Nothing really happens, most of the story is told via title cards and the two ghosts inch from one side of the screen to the other with barely a word between them. They’re trying company but at least they’re taking the scenic route. Cinematographer Eduard Grau (Buried , A Single Man) has created a picturesque landscape of forests, lakes, mountains and cathedrals that, as the travellers materialize into view (one riding a magnificent white horse, the other ditching a wheelchair to tag along) almost become haunted paintings. The lakes are blanketed in thick fog, the foothills are eroding into nothingness and the trees have each sprouted a pair of plastic ears- all the better to hear a babel of woodland voices.

Yes, in an attempt to temper the Bergmanesque austerity of it all, Caballero has introduced a rather whimsical sense of comic relief: the horse is sometimes transformed into a stuffed toy, its head swinging as though possessed; branches are played like musical instruments and then forthwith brought down upon each other’s head, and, for no reason other than it might be amusing, objects appear with a bang and a puff of smoke. So far, so slapstick, but the film’s targets are also set on the other side of the spectrum. As one ghost peers into a hole in a tree, he is surprised to find a screen showing what looks like a punk TV show about a man vomiting over a cake. Perplexed, the ghost reports to his partner and delivers the punch line: ‘‘It’s a piece of Catalan video art from the late Eighties.’’ For a film that so defiantly resists categorisation, ‘surreal’ seems too lazy an adjective.

Where the film does show flair, however, is in its supporting cast of non-humans. Frogs, owls and deer interact with the ghosts as you’d assume most animals would two blokes under a duvet- although some, surely with the supervision of handlers, play against type- and the interior shot of a deer blissfully roaming an empty manor house is one of the film’s rare gems. But after testing the viewer’s patience for eighty long minutes, the lasting impression is one of sheer listlessness. Certainly in condensed form, a ten-minute short, perhaps, the tale would retain its wonder without having to wander. But too many detours make a film that may have a destination in sight, but has little use of direction.

©D.Wakefield, 2011