Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Day 5

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Day 5 of the festival, and this was the peak I was working to. Like a gym exercise bike attempting to mimic riding up and down a mountain, I’d started slow with days of three or four films, but the Monday of the festival was always destined to be the big day. If you’re at the festival morning, noon and night then each screen gets through typically six screenings or programmes in a day, so with some careful planning and no care for your own personal sanity, it is possible to squeeze in six films. That, on Monday, is precisely what I did.

I’ve blogged before on the challenges of seeing seven films in a day, and the care that needs to be taken. Seeing six at a festival is a slightly different challenge, as choice is reduced and the planning made somewhat easier, but the logistics of taking in food – not to mention avoiding a DVT – still make it a challenge not to be entered into lightly. The real key is ensuring variety, and the selections I’d made, from Estonia to London (in two eras) via Germany and France, helped to prepare me for the day ahead.

These were the films I saw on Monday 17th September.

The Temptation Of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine) Long time readers will know I’m not a fan of awards, as they get more right than they do wrong. Despite quite liking the Danish film In A Better World which won the Best Actor, there was already a long list from that year’s official submissions I liked more (Incendies, Of Gods And Men, Dogtooth, Confessions, Biutiful and Tirza, in case you were wondering), and that list has now gotten one longer. It’s also testament to the benefit of occasions such as the film festival, as this was showing in a short Estonian season, and as far as I can tell has never had a theatrical release in this country before.

Given how few of the list of 66 submissions from that year have surfaced in this country, that can only be regarded as a crying shame, especially if Temptation is anything to go by. Divided into half a dozen separate chapters, but with overlapping narratives and characters, each explores facets of mortality as Tony reflects on life and existence. It starts as a black comedy and isn’t afraid to explore some darkly dramatic places as well, with some stunning and occasionally surreal images; the humour and the unique images will hook you in before director Veiko Õunpuu takes things up a notch, going to some deep, dark places on Tony’s journey of self-discovery. Taavi Eelmaa’s poised and often expressionless face marks his initially passive journey through events around him, becoming crucially more involved as he attempts to break away from and subvert his safe, domestic middle-aged existence. Look out also for an appearance from Denis Lavant, who stars in Holy Motors and which could also be a companion piece to this film. (Spoiler for day 11: I preferred this. I think. More on that later.) The Score: 9/10

Untouchable (Intouchables)  It’s a French film, it’s already been a massive hit across the continent and it’s been picked up by the Weinsteins, and it currently sits at position number 73 on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 films of all time, as voted for by users. So what’s not to love? The story of a grumpy, frustrated quadriplegic who decides to shake up his life a little by hiring a Senegalese man just looking to meet the minimum requirements for his benefit claim, it’s a feel good film of epic proportions that isn’t afraid to have a laugh along with the characters at either their backgrounds or their afflictions, and there’s a huge amount of chemistry in the relationship between disabled but wealthy Phillippe (François Cluzet) and troubled but charismatic carer Driss (Omar Sy). Indeed, what’s not to love?

Quite a lot, actually. If you approach the film with blinkers on, just looking at the relationship in isolation, it’s easy to see the charm and entertainment of the lead pairing, but as you cast your gaze wider the stereotypes and clichés stack up with an alarming frequency. Black man likes Seventies disco music but upper class white man is into classical music? Fair enough. Black man has a view that modern art is just squiggles on a paper and anyone can do it? Erm… White rich man has disaffected, troubled daughter (with boyfriend in tow), carer comes from a troubled background with disappointed mother and even more troubled siblings? White rich man also has a PA who’s the only one immune to the charms of his black carer, but she turns out to be a… I’ll let you guess; if you can’t, this may be the film for you, but it certainly wasn’t for me, the engineered storytelling (based on a true story, but with so many details put through the poor storytelling mangle that it always feels fake) and the inability to give any of the subplots the time they need simply because so many have been stacked up makes Untouchable start to feel top heavy and ultimately a rather cynical attempt to play on your emotions and engage your sympathies, almost an entertainment-seeking monster than an actual film. The Score: 5/10

The Big Eden  It seems every country has one; a good time entrepreneur with a seedy image but charisma to burn and an almost inexplicable ability to charm the ladies. America have their Hugh Hefner, Britain their Peter Stringfellow and Germany their Rolf Eden. Eden came to notoriety through a set of Berlin nightclubs that he set up (and which all failed dramatically once he’d sold them off), and The Big Eden presents Rolf’s life story, interspersed with interviews from both his contemporaries and the many women he’s been with over the years. A number of those women have also produced children, and their stories help to add a contemporary perspective to a story that is, by nature, slightly rooted in the past. Other than the significant age range of the children he’s sired, The Big Eden is a little unremarkable, but it does succeed to an extent in getting underneath what’s made such a success of the man, and how he’s become so appealing to the ladies. The Score: 7/10

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog  Thanks to the BFI and their restoration efforts, a number of Alfred Hitchcock films have now been returned to cinemas looking better than ever, and the Cambridge Film Festival had a season of a dozen of the master’s top works, both from his rich Hollywood period and from his silent British days. The Lodger is one of those earlier films, but bears all of the hallmarks of his later work, not least in his willingness to corrupt the image of a screen idol of the time, in this case Ivor Novello as the shady traveller who takes room and lodgings at the same time that a serial killer named The Avenger is terrorising London every Tuesday. The methodical nature, the plot twists and the direct camera work are all present and correct and it clearly demonstrates that it wasn’t just in Hollywood and in colour that Hitch was able to work his magic.

The only slight downside about this particular print was the score by Nitin Sawhney, which while evocative of both mood and period for the most part, used a couple of more contemporary sounding songs which jarred slightly, but since they were out of the director’s control I’m willing to let him off this time. The Score: 8/10

Now Is Good  The second film I’ve seen at the festival, after Come As You Are, to ostensibly feature a character or characters searching for sex as part of a wider purpose, Now Is Good isn’t really about that at all. Sex is just one of many narrative diversions that this story, based on Jenny Downham’s fiction novel “Before I Die”, takes along the road of trying to understand what life must be like for a teenager dying of leukaemia and whether or not she can encapsulate a lifetime of experiences into a few short months. Dakota Fanning plays the stricken teen Tessa, perfecting a cut-glass English accent (which does occasionally feel at odds with the very contemporary Brighton setting), and Jeremy “War Horse” Irvine is saddled with the unfortunate job of being the eventual object of her affections, which mainly consists of standing in the background of scenes, alternating between looking shocked, repulsed and a bit gorgeous.

Where Now Is Good really resonates is with the characters and performances of Tessa’s parents, played by Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams. Considine is the overly controlling father who is struggling to come to terms with the fact he’ll outlive his daughter, and Williams the estranged mother who’s doing her best to take apathy and incompetence to new levels. Without their performances, Now Is Good would be just another teen drama, and possibly a slightly exploitative one; with them it becomes a rounded drama, which will engage the emotions of anyone with half a heart. If you can put aside a poorly handled sub-plot involving Tessa’s best friend (a cheery Kaya Scodelario) then Now Is Good succeeds on its own terms, and any of a sensitive disposition should make sure they pack a couple of hankies for the last act. The Score: 7/10

The film was followed by a generally cheery and pleasant Q & A with star Jeremy Irvine and producer Peter Czernin. Ranging from insights into what it was like to act opposite Considine (apparently him waving a butter knife around at the breakfast table during a scene came across as particularly menacing) to the experience of a girl with leukaemia actually coming to set, which was apparently surprisingly life-affirming. It’s only a slight shame that more of Irvine’s genuine charm that came across in the flesh wasn’t captured in the film.

Tower Block  A very British take on the high rise drama, it’s a simple set-up that tries its hardest to wring tension out of a set of generally unsympathetic and unlikeable characters. A murder takes place on the top floor of a tower block, but the residents are either too scared or too partisan to get involved with finding the culprit. The block is being evacuated by developers, and eventually those top floor residents are (conveniently) the last residents left in the building, all the easier to be picked off by a mystery sniper. The quality of the actors is good, with new British talent such as Sheridan Smith and Russell Tovey mixing with the likes of more established names of the likes of Ralph Brown and Julie Graham, but the only real standout in a coterie of people you wouldn’t want to live next to is Jack O’Connell as the protection money collector Kurtis, who makes unpleasantness an art form and is all the more watchable for it.

Directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson do what they can to wring tension from the situation and there’s some moody scenes, but genuine tension proves harder to come by. It’s not all their fault; while James Moran’s script does deal out a few good lines to O’Connell, Smith and Tovey, it’s a little pedestrian and often predictable, and doesn’t match up either to his work on the likes of Doctor Who and Torchwood, or indeed to his Danny Dyer-featuring horror Severance from 2005. This is one middling Brit thriller it’ll be hard to get stuck into. The Score: 6/10

Next time: sushi, suspicion, Sinister and some amazing Mongolian music in my not quite alliterative day 6.

One thought on “Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Day 5

    […] 5 is the Monday of the festival, and is the point in last year’s festival where I hit my peak, watching six films in the day. That was no longer possible at this […]

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