Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.

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Film #55: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

film 55 lars and the real girl

Rating: 5/5

“You won’t be able to change his mind, anyway. Bianca’s in town for a reason.”

A few years before Ryan Gosling became every woman’s idea of a perfect man, he starred in this, a wonderfully heart-warming, quirky tale of small town life and one man’s attempt to finally forge a human connection. This is the first film I saw him in, and I remember being quite captivated by his understated performance. He’s barely recognisable here; his finely sculpted body is concealed beneath old-man-jumpers and layers upon layers of clothing, he’s sporting a moustache that makes him look far older than he really is, and he’s less muscly than cuddly, but he is utterly endearing. Yes, I probably sound like every other swooning fangirl, but for anyone critical of his recent acclaim, I implore you to watch Lars and the Real Girl – it will change your mind.

I’ve always been a fan of the unconventional love story, and this film definitely falls into that category. Like Secretary (another of my favourite films, which will get reviewed here at some point), in the wrong hands it could become sleazy or uncomfortable, but all the elements work in perfect harmony. What’s so great about this film is that there are no bad guys, no enemies; in Lars’ time of need, his whole community comes together to support him. In fact, despite some initial reservations about playing along with his delusion (particularly from his brother Gus), they all benefit from his girlfriend’s arrival – the “real girl” of the title, who just so happens to be a life size sex doll.

Bianca (the doll) appears one day in a giant wooden crate, her blank face covered in garish make-up and her body barely hidden underneath fishnet and pvc. Her first encounter with Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant, well-meaning wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) is one of the most hilarious moments in the film; for the first time, Lars voluntarily comes to visit, to tell them of his new girlfriend. He met her on the internet, he tells them. She’s very religious, having been brought up by missionary nuns, and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the garage with him. And, would you believe it, someone stole her luggage and her wheelchair! Despite these slightly odd comments, Gus and Karin are so happy to discover he’s got a girlfriend that they dig out the new towels, make up the bed in the spare room, and invite Bianca over to dinner. And then, dumbfounded silence. Schneider’s face says it all – he perfectly encapsulates the utter disbelief that would no doubt be shared by anyone put in a similar situation. It’s a brilliant moment: Karin’s quiet confusion, Gus’ incredulous expression, Bianca’s blank stare, and Lars’ big, happy, oblivious smile.

Crucially, at no point does it feel as though either the characters, or us as an audience, are laughing at Lars. It’s the situations that are so entertaining; the reactions of the townsfolk as they are confronted with Bianca attending church and the doctors; their attempts to understand exactly what is going on; their willingness to play along if it means helping one man who, as they all confirm, is a nice boy, albeit a troubled one. Yet his delusion is not harming anyone and, as one particularly understanding church member points out, everyone has their strange quirks. As they take Bianca under their wing, she becomes an invaluable member of the community – her slutty clothes are replaced by more weather-appropriate attire, she gets a haircut, her make-up is wiped off, and she gets several jobs. In fact, she’s so busy, poor Lars starts getting rather sidelined, and gradually, this apparently perfect relationship begins developing cracks.

While Gosling is the star of the show, he is supported by a wonderful cast – Schneider and Mortimer are brilliant, as is Kelli Garner who plays Margo, a new girl at Lars’ workplace who is evidently rather smitten by the taciturn man, and Patricia Clarkson as the town’s doctor. The actors are all blessed with a pitch perfect screenplay by Nancy Oliver, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination (she lost out to Juno‘s Diablo Cody); there’s not a moment that feels out of place, contrived, or cruel. Lars and the Real Girl is a delicate, poignant, and truly hilarious tale – I can feel the clichés itching to come out: words like heart-warming, touching, quirky. But it is all of these things, and more.

Film #54: Man on Wire (2008)

film 54 man on wire

Rating: 5/5

“If I die, what a beautiful death!”

In 2009, James Marsh’s superb film Man on Wire won Best Documentary at the Oscars. In any other year, I would have been happy, but I must admit this win was tinged with sadness for me, because it beat Encounters at the End of the World. Yet general consensus quietly agrees that the latter was included predominantly because Werner Herzog’s previous documentary, Grizzly Man, had failed to even secure a nomination in 2006, and this was the Academy’s way of putting right an egregious wrong. So, as biased as I am towards Herzog, whose films have (sadly) yet to be picked out of the bag, even I must concede that if he had to lose out (again) at the Oscars, at least he lost out to a worthy opponent – and, to be honest, I doubt that the director himself actually cares at all. Man on Wire is fantastic, make no mistake – an exhilarating memoir disguised as a heist film, it gathers you up and pulls you into Phillipe Petit’s obsessed world until, finally, you are rewarded with an unforgettable moment: it’s a moment of lunacy, undoubtedly, but it’s also beautiful, serene, magical.

Based on a book by Petit, Man on Wire recounts the Frenchman’s efforts to achieve his dream – to walk along a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York. It was an obsession that haunted him from the moment he first discovered the skyscrapers were being built in the early 1960s. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that he would finally have the opportunity, carrying out the “artistic crime of the century” with the help of a band of people who had been caught up in his wake and dragged along for this delirious ride.

The film’s style brings to mind that of acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris, combining the traditional talking heads – a perfunctory inclusion that generally lacks visual dynamism – with monochrome re-enactments. Yet Petit in particular is such an engaging character that even his interview segments are filled with excitement and vitality – he is spry and hyperactive, expressive with not just his face but his whole body. It’s easy to see how he persuaded the motley crew of friends, associates, and virtual strangers to help him on what could so easily have been a suicide mission. The re-enactments, in contrast, are muted in colour and slightly grainy, yet no less engaging: Marsh cleverly creates his heist caper here, as Petit recalls the almost slapstick manner by which they broke into the Twin Towers, with their vast quantities of rigging and equipment. Were it not for the reiteration of his story by his co-conspirators, it would be easy to dismiss his version of events as fanciful and highly exaggerated: having to hide under tarpaulin while the security guards smoked cigarettes, the near-misses and ridiculous situations they managed to get themselves into. The good humour and often hilarious descriptions mask, or at least undermine, the criminality of their actions, not to mention the hugely dangerous potential of his dream, so that Man on Wire remains eternally optimistic and invigorating.

Alongside these talking head interviews and re-enactment segments, Marsh’s film undoubtedly benefits from an impressive wealth of existing footage of Petit’s various exploits. From his jaunt across the Sydney Harbour bridge, to small, tender moments shared between friends, the combination of photos and film footage nostalgically capture the decade just as they capture the closeness of this group of friends. They are an inviting bunch; if there were fights and disagreements, they are hidden away – what matters, it is implied, was the fun. For this period of time, the group lived, breathed, slept and dreamed Petit’s dream; they vicariously lived his obsession, which he had infected each and every one of them with. And, in the end, it was his life at risk, but they all reaped the rewards of his actions, as they helped him achieve something that was insane, of course, but somehow life-changing for them all. Just listening to his former girlfriend as she recalls watching him from the streets below, and you get the sense that there was something utterly profound about his actions; this was an experience shared by friends and strangers alike, one that would never be forgotten. Yet there is a somewhat bittersweet element here, emphasised in the film’s final moments as the group discuss what happened after they had finally achieved Petit’s dream. After all those years of planning, the obsessive detailing and meticulous (or not) preparation, what is left afterwards? It’s a poignant end to a beautiful, and ultimately very human film.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing James Marsh twice over the years, and you can read both interviews here:
Citizen Nim
Subdued Suspense