Cambridge Film Festival 2014

If it's good enough for Buster Keaton...

If it’s good enough for Buster Keaton…

The 34th Cambridge Film Festival (CFF) is done for another year and it’s been a cracking festival, which is especially heartening given the uncertain future of its home, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, seriously threatened by an earlier ludicrous ruling from the Competition Commission (so who’s still here huh Comp Comm? It’s US!) The situation is still not finally resolved but the story is best read here: http://movieevangelist.wordpress.com/competition-commission/.

Moving the festival dates by just a week to the end of August/beginning of September has definitely worked – box office receipts are up 30% on last year and I didn’t have to work every day – the two don’t necessarily go together I hasten to add. In a year of brilliant films (so many that my developing Top 10 list has exploded), CFF added quite a few more to that list. As expected the Gerhard Lamprecht films were utterly gorgeous (here’s my introduction to this prolific German director for Take One: http://www.takeonecff.com/2014/introducing-gerhard-lamprecht), and the digital restoration of Le Jour Se Leve (Marcel Carne) was spectacular. From the first two days, two films have stayed with me: Tamar van den Dop’s Supernova and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves more than exceeded expectations. To those I’d add Cherry Tobacco (directed by Katrin Maimik and Andres Maimik) and Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida, both films with leading girls in their first films. Disappointments were few: Wong Kar-Wai’s Grand Master, the surprise film, was devoid of any narrative or interest. It looked amazing but couldn’t hold my attention. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film A Most Wanted Man just didn’t get going, although PSH was on top form – either the story itself is too thin or the screenplay has been cut too much. Regrets? I have a few: The Japanese Dog, Stations of The Cross, Violet, and Beloved Sisters. They go on the to-watch list. So here we go:

DAY 1


Supernova (Belgium, 2014) is a fairy tale with a hint of the Wild West but set in rural Holland. Meis is 15/16 years old; she lives at the frontier of adolescence, death and deep water with her family in a battered solitary house on a sharp bend in the road. Over the years several cars have hit the house and this seems to be a metaphor for their life: nothing much happens for most of the time then an explosion of activity, excitement and danger. It’s a tale of bursting sexuality, of pushing the boundaries – and then being scared by what might happen. Meis is reading one of her mum’s erotic fiction books, the storyline becoming so entangled with the film’s narrative that it’s impossible to know whether she is experiencing certain events or is fantasising. The entire focus isn’t on Meis, however. Her dad has been disabled in a car crash and can’t (or won’t) work, Mum is overworked, resentful and furious about their life; Granny has dementia, is mute and constantly shakes her head; Grandad has recently drowned himself, which turns out to be the defining element of Meis’ life so far. Director Tamar van den Dop, who also plays Mum, has a steady hand, likes the close-up, and isn’t afraid to delve deep into how (some) families work. The cinematography is beautiful, precise, fluid; in conjunction with the impressive soundscape, the film creates a sympathetic picture of growing up. Supernova is a languid, slow-paced film that effectively explores family life, with all the usual excitement, loneliness, boredom, grief and yet still being able to look forward.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (France, 2014). A bizarre mockumentary (horrible word I know) about an apparently real event in the life of one of France’s most famous and revered writers. Michel plays himself. Inexplicably, he is kidnapped by a gang of burly thugs, who turn out to be complete softies at heart. Their entire family is involved in ‘looking after’ Michel throughout his incarceration – but he calls the shots. He loves a bottle of wine, a pack of ciggies and the company of a girl in his bed. It’s very funny, constantly surprising and baffling – we have no idea what the truth might be but it’s a very entertaining ride. The director, Guillame Nicloux, took part in a good-natured bi-lingual Q&A afterwards, in which he revealed that none of the participants are actors and that he was trying to offer a ‘pot-pouri of [Michel]s emotions, other than the usual media portrayal of him’.

DAY 2

Night Moves (USA, 2013) My film buff friends will be disgusted that I haven’t seen a Kelly Reichardt film before… but it’s true. However, what a treat Night Moves is – an intelligent, balanced, sensitive and beautiful environmental thriller. It has no visible flashes, crashes, chases or gimmicks, but it’s tense, exciting and engrossing. Jesse Eisenberg has the most expressionless yet expressive face I’ve seen since Buster Keaton – are we reading conflict and confusion on his face where none exists? He really makes us work at what’s going on in his head. Reichardt sets out lots of different ways to react to the extreme end of environmental activism and lets us make our own minds up about how we might feel in certain situations. The camerawork lingers on the gorgeous autumnal landscape: its painterly eye often lingers on great swathes of oranges and yellows across green backdrops as the leaves turn colour. Being a thriller I’m not going to reveal the plot but make sure you see it.

The White City (USA, 2014) I lasted for an hour with this flaccid waste of screen space. Then out in the sun for a coffee opposite King’s College. Much better.

Children Of No Importance (Germany, 1926) I loved this film, it’s intimate, touching, truthful and I want to see it again. And possibly adopt at least one of the said children. Yes, yes, 90 years too late but they are adorable. I reviewed it for Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2014/children-importance.

A Most Wanted Man (UK/Germany/USA, 2014). Hmmmm. I think we’d all agree that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a mighty fine acting talent. This is his final film and he takes centre stage as Gunter, a spy chief operating in Hamburg, with the fabulous Nina Hoss as his ‘colleague’, Willem Dafoe as the possibly dodgy banker, plus Rachel McAdams as Annabel, a lawyer specialising in  defending asylum seekers. The film’s pedigree is without question but the story is a bit flat – I expected a lot more from a John Le Carre plot. The various contortions of the narrative all seemed to be going a bit too well when all of a sudden… It doesn’t. I can’t believe that someone in Gunter’s position with his experience (a previous bodge up in Beirut sours his past) didn’t make plans to counteract what did happen. If that makes sense. Anyway it was enjoyable to a point. NEXT!

DAY 3

Ida (Poland/Denmark, 2013) plus Shortreel film award. Perhaps the mostly visually striking film I’ve seen in a long while, Pawel Pawlikowski ‘s story concerns a young novice nun, Anna, who is soon to take her vows. The Mother Superior sends her out into the world to find her only remaining relative, an aunt. Anna’s parents were killed during World War II but she knows nothing about them. At first the aunt appears to be callous and cold, she lives a disillusioned life of casual sex and drink. She reveals almost casually that Anna’s real name is Ida and she is a Jew, not a Catholic; she soon warms to Ida and promises to drive her to find the grave of her parents – the aunt’s much loved sister and brother-in-law. When they arrive at the village they receive a hostile reception at their old family home. Eventually the unhappy truth is revealed. Ida is a slow, gentle pace (possibly echoing the pace of convent life) but much happens: tragedies are revealed, love is tested and despair forces the aunt to take desperate measures. The framing is remarkable, with many shots of characters in the lower quarter, or less, of the screen, reminiscent of Sebastião Salgado’s beautiful photos. The characters are very much dwarfed by their environments. The film seems to be a mediation on how damaging to the civilian population conflict is, and how it continues to cause pain and suffering long after the ceasefire. Ida is set in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the settings are sparse, but the music is warm and voluptuous. For a brief time Ida falls for a sax player but ultimately she can’t seem to turn her back on convent life. At least she has made a choice of sorts, but the circumstances in which she lives, taking place only 15 years or so after the end of the war, offer little real independence.

In Order Of Disappearance (Norway, 2014). The contrast with Ida could hardly be greater. This Scandi-noir is full of pointless violence and unengaging characters, but it’s sometimes bleakly funny.

DAY 4

Cherry Tobacco (Estonia, 2014). I was looking forward to this, purely on the grounds of it being Estonian (remember last year’s brilliantly funny Mushrooming?) and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a touchingly told story of impossible love between a young woman (maybe 17/18 years old) and a much older man. The action centres on a forest trek, Laura is at a loose end in her life, Joosep is the expedition leader – there is a lot that could go wrong here but it isn’t the slightest bit sleazy or creepy. Remarkably, Cherry Tobacco retains an innocence that isn’t sickly or weird; instead it’s a terrific coming of age story that evokes memory and feelings through the senses, especially smells (the tobacco he smokes for one). There are some neat observations of the tricky embarrassments that arise in young romance – it’s a beguiling film in every way.

Attila Marcel (France, 2013). Sylvain Chomet’s first live action film was quite light, frothy and disappointing. It’s just a bit too twee for my liking, the characters are unengaging, the plot is daft and it tries so very hard to be funny.

War Story (USA, 2013) I reviewed this interesting but flawed film for Take One here: http://www.takeonecff.com/2014/war-story

DAY 6

Violette (France Belgium, 2013). I’m not a huge fan of biopics but this one by Martin Provost is well worth watching. the Violette of the title is Violette Leduc, radical French writer, friend of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet. She’s something of a reluctant writer initially but once the door to her memory has been propped open, she can’t stop. Encouraged by de Beauvoir to dig even deeper for, she claims, the good of all women, Violette reveals every last detail of her chequered life, including her sexual adventures. For many years it seems to be a terribly painful experience for her, until she has a breakdown. Violette has a love-hate relationship with her mum, who apparently didn’t want her and showed no motherly affection during her childhood, but they are locked together – can’t live with/can’t live without each other. The mother is reminiscent of the mum in A Taste Of Honey – selfish, not maternal, highly critical but nevertheless keeps turning up. Violette has been deeply  damaged by her mum’s behaviour. Her life is filled with loneliness, she never finds a long term partner, never has children but in the end she finds a kind of peace in Provence, seemingly content with writing in solitude. De Beauvoir remains a constant presence and it seems from this film was the prime mover behind Violette’s literary career. The post-Second World War setting is very convincing, the costumes beautiful, but not self consciously so, Emmanuel Devos plays Violette with real gusto, embodying this apparently difficult woman in fine style.

Day 7

People To Each Other (Germany, 1926). Another in the Lamprecht season and my favourite, along with Children Of No Importance. If you like people-watching then this is one for you. It’s all about the quirky little ways people do things, their expressions, their relationships and interactions. The film examines the residents of an apartment block in Berlin. A long-time resident introduces the new doorkeeper (and us) to her charges, it’s a great way to present so many characters without causing confusion for the viewer. Lamprecht liked organising his films into separate acts, there are eight here. It’s especially appropriate for People To Each Other where various character’s lives are explored in a ‘chapter’ and we see how they get along with their neighbours. People help each other, show little kindnesses, share adversity, fall in love and gossip; these are portraits that we recognise from our own lives. As the housekeeper’s friend says in the final scene ‘Well didn’t I tell you’d get to see something?’

Day 8

Finding Fela (USA, 2014) The National Theatre staged Fela! a couple of years ago and it was FUN! Alex Gibney’s film is about the making of the play, crafting it to be true to its colourful, and sometimes objectionable, subject. I really enjoyed it, he captures the energy of the man and of the play. I was sorry to miss the last 20 minutes but Screen 1 was calling me….

Le Jour Se Leve (France, 1939). Dashing out of Finding Fela into this fine example of the French poetic realist film starring Jean Gabin and Arletty, was an enormous change of pace. The new restoration has made a big difference, although there are a couple of rough-looking and sounding scenes. These certainly didn’t spoil the experience. If you haven’t seen it then do! The story is set in a room in Paris, Jean Gabin’ s moody character Francois is holed up in his apartment in Paris reliving the crime that has turned him into a wanted man. Armed police surround his building; we are taken into Francois’ memories to find out how he ended up in such a predicament. It’s tense, emotional and tragic. Wonderful.

Day 10

Under The Lantern (Germany, 1928) I reviewed this tragic Lamprecht story for Take One http://www.takeonecff.com/2014/lantern

Day 11

Torn (USA/Pakistan, 2014). Having quit the surprise film, Wong Kar Wai’s Grand Master, due to boredom with the never-ending fighting, I took my final festival seat in Screen 2 for Torn. On paper Torn looked promising: a Pakistani/American family and an American single mom are thrown together after their sons are killed in a terrorist bomb blast at the local mall. Their tentative friendship is severely tested when accusations begin to emerge in the press. What could have been a sensitive exploration of grief and reconcilaition, sadly turns out to be cliche-ridden and heavy-handed. I think the director Jeremiah Birnbaum aimed to expose and challenge stereotypical attitudes to young Muslim kids (especially) but what he does is to replace one set of stereotypes with another. My biggest beef was with the look of the two female leads. Neither looked all that shattered – especially Mahnoor Baloch, playing the mother of the principle suspect; she stayed beautiful throughout – neat hair and clothes, bright eyes, lovely skin. I didn’t believe she’d just lost her child. The portrayal of the FBI seemed questionable – do they really still jump to such ready conclusions when a boy of Pakistani origin is killed too? Perhaps I’m being naive. At 85 minutes it was mercifully short; on the plus side the ending is really good.

So that’s it for another year. If you have been … thanks for reading!

Here’s my round up of the Lamprecht season for Local Secrets: http://www.localsecrets.com/ezine.cfm?ezineid=4514~golden-era-silent-movies+cinema

Take One’s festival paper is here http://issuu.com/take_one/docs/issue_2_2014_print?e=0/9073149

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