Wednesday 10 February 2021

Bigfoot Family (Ben Stassen / Jeremy Degruson, 2020)

Three years on from the generally entertaining Son of Bigfoot, Ben Stassen returns with this vastly superior sequel; between his two Sasquatch adventures, the ever-busy Stassen made the middling The Queen's Corgi, an amusing enough diversion, yet one which didn't demonstrate much progress on the part of the Belgian filmmaker.  Bigfoot Family, however, might well be Stassen's best film to date, and it manages to marry top-drawer animation to an appealing, exciting story, which is a trick that Stassen and his studio nWave haven't always managed to pull off with their films - not that they're the only purveyors of animated features to have slipped up in such a manner.  Although nWave have always made a good fist of producing solid animation in the face of megabudgeted competition from the likes of Pixar, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and the like, Bigfoot Family may be the first film from the Belgian studio to pose a serious question to the all-conquering Disney and its various subsidiaries.  Which is not to say that nWave can realistically expect to take on the big American animation studios in financial terms, but, from a creative perspective, Bigfoot Family is a film that holds its own against any feature-length toon from the past year or so.  

As with the first film, it's Adam, the offspring of Bigfoot, who is actually at the centre of the story.  Adam's life has changed considerably since he successfully tracked down his missing father in Son of Bigfoot, and his family's home is now shared with the myriad woodland creatures that helped his dad during his stint in the wild.  Furthermore, Bigfoot himself has become a major celebrity - the film's alternative title is Bigfoot Superstar - and it now seems that everyone wants a piece of the hirsute scientist.  Bigfoot has little interest in milking his status for financial gain, but rather decides to use his newfound fame to help a good cause, so he heads to Alaska to join a group of protesters who are camped outside an onshore drilling site.  Shortly after arriving in Alaska, Bigfoot vanishes, so Adam and his mum (and the unruly animals) set off for Alaska in the hope of solving the mystery; as in Son of Bigfoot, Adam is charged with locating his missing father, and in a further parallel with the first film, his investigation brings him up against a sinister, greedy megacorporation.

With its largely recycled plot, Bigfoot Family could easily have served as a pale imitation of its predecessor, but the outstanding animation - the Alaskan wilderness is brilliantly recreated - immediately marks the film out as one that's looking to improve on Son of Bigfoot (which itself boasted fine tech credits); however, and as previously noted, great animation counts for little if you don't have the script to support it, but here both the dialogue and humour are well-judged.  While the basic setup offers nothing very new, Stassen and his crew have made a charming, witty, family-friendly film that appeals to young and old alike; the catchy, poppy soundtrack, courtesy of Belgian group Puggy, helps ensure that things move along at a nice clip  Tweens are covered, too, via a subplot involving the crush the awkward Adam has on his good friend Emma.  While Bigfoot Family covers some environmental issues, it never does so in an overly preachy way, and its ideas about renewable energy and the future might prompt one or two interesting enquiries from younger viewers.

Bigfoot Family made its debut at last year's Annecy IAFF, and it's a pity that such a great effort from nWave was denied a clear run at the box office; while the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a situation that everyone in the filmmaking world has had to adapt to - numerous films that were intended for theatrical distribution have plunged straight to VOD - it seems a great pity that what may well be the jewel in nWave's crown has bypassed so many cinemas.  The film, like the rest of the studio's feature output, was made to be shown in 3D, and it is quite possible that this expense would have been spared had Stassen and his colleagues known what was in store for the film industry.  However, you can - and should - support the film now that it's out on home video, and you can even watch it in 3D if you have the required setup at home.  Bigfoot Family is easily nWave's best film since The House of Magic, and it provides some much-needed fun in these troubled times.   

Darren Arnold

Images: nWave

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Lux Æterna (Gaspar Noé, 2019)

Amazingly, the last Cannes Film Festival took place way back in 2019, and it was during this edition that Gaspar Noé's Lux Æterna was first unleashed; in September 2020, during a welcome if brief window in which cinemas were permitted to reopen, the film received a theatrical release in France.  For those of us who didn't manage to catch the film on the big screen, it's been an extremely long wait, but last month Lux Æterna began to surface on several VOD platforms; while consuming the film in this manner isn't exactly ideal, your eyeballs will probably thank you by the time you reach the end of the mild-mannered Noé's latest visual assault on audiences.  In all seriousness, Lux Æterna is a film that fully warrants its epilepsy warning, so please keep this in mind before viewing.  When the film received its French premiere, it was preceded by a Noé short titled The Art of Filmmaking, a stroboscopic essay film that is borderline unwatchable, and I do wonder what condition the audience were in when they braced themselves for the main feature. 

Yet to refer to Lux Æterna as a feature is slightly misleading, as it runs to a little over fifty minutes.  Noé initially received funding from Saint Laurent to shoot an advert for the luxury fashion house, but came up with something that was much longer than, and some way from, what was ordered; luckily, YSL were very happy with what their money had been spent on.  Noé actually shot enough footage to make a feature film of typical length, but Lux Æterna's liberal use of split-screen effectively halves the film's runtime.  As such, the film is closer in length to Noé's uncompromising Carne - a work that's now a full thirty years old - than it is to any of his five full-length films from I Stand Alone through Climax.  While the addition of The Art of Filmmaking would have allowed the programme to be classified as a feature film in France, the short isn't included in the version currently streaming, so we are best to consider Lux Æterna to be a medium-length work, albeit one that proves to be way more interesting than many films twice the length.  While its fierce strobe effects prove to be something of an endurance test, Lux Æterna stands as Noé's tamest film (it's all relative), as it eschews both the juddering violence and sexually explicit material we've largely come to expect from his work.

As with every Noé film from 2002's Irreversible on, Lux Æterna features the work of expert cinematographer Benoit Debie, and the brilliant Belgian's work here provides yet further proof of both his extraordinary ability and the essential part he plays in forming Noé's now-trademark aesthetic.  Lux Æterna, like Irreversible - which was recently re-edited into a chronological version that is now available on Blu-ray - culminates in a sensory overload, but at least this time around the audience doesn't face the challenge while still fresh from a pummelling by two of the most brutal sequences in modern mainstream cinema; Lux Æterna, despite instilling the rising sense of unease we've long since come to associate with Noé's films, is at its heart a warm, rather playful affair, one in which all of the cast and crew are credited by just their first names, which stands in sharp contrast to Irreversible's opening (closing?) credits, wherein those on both sides of the camera were coldly, simply denoted by their surnames.  

Lux Æterna is a meta-movie in which actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle play themselves; Dalle is directing a film about witch trials, and Gainsbourg is the star.  Yet Dalle is faced with many obstacles, ranging from meddling producers to a highly subversive cinematographer, plus there's Karl Glusman, from Noé's 3D movie Love, as a rather desperate type who's apparently flown in from LA just to pitch his new project to the put-upon Gainsbourg.  For the climactic witch-burning scene of Dalle's film, models Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz flank Gainsbourg as the three are tied to stakes in front of a green screen.  But a strange lighting glitch occurs, and Lux Æterna winds to its fiery conclusion via a full-bore RGB nightmare.  These closing moments are really the film's raison d'être, and they deliver exactly what we've come to expect from Noé, which is a real experience; he's a filmmaker who's always determined to evoke a visceral response from his audience.  While Noé always appears chiefly interested in what his viewers think - or, more accurately, feel - when they're caught up in watching his work, his prior films are all extremely memorable, and the infernal, invigorating Lux Æterna, in which Noé delivers his thrills with typical aplomb, is thankfully no different.

Darren Arnold

Images: UFO Distribution