Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Day 6

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Day 6, the halfway point in the festival, and also the halfway point in my viewing plans for the festival. Seeing so many films now starts to take on something of the feeling of being halfway down a long, dark tunnel; my skin is starting to suffer slightly from the lack of sunlight – some moisturiser soon sorts that out, at least on a temporary basis – but more than that, the effects of sitting down in the same position for six to ten hours a day are starting to affect both my body and my mind.

The solution to that problem is a little more obvious – stop spending six to ten hours a day in the cinema – but it’s a solution I won’t have the luxury of for nearly another week. So by this point I started to dispense with the normal facing forward sitting position, adopting an increasing number of variations, including a sort of side-saddle and a splayed crucifix where only a small amount of me was in contact with the seat. I had to try to keep the variations down as the week went on, lest people think me a horrendous fidget, but it did just about save me from pins and needles, or worse, as the week wore on.

This, however, was what was on screen in front of my fidgeting on Tuesday 18th September.

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi For the second time in two years, I saw a documentary about a three star Michelin restaurant at the film festival. Jiro was a noticeable improvement over last year’s El Bulli, not least because it spends as much time understanding the proprietor as it does the restaurant. Sushi looks deceptively simple, just some rice, some raw fish, a little wasabi and some seasoning, but David Gelb’s documentary successfully illuminates quite why chefs need to spend up to ten years learning some of the more refined techniques before they can truly call themselves proficient, and why a man of eighty-five is still working day in, day out to create some of the finest cuisine in the world. It also takes a look at what the future might hold for both this restaurant, and a second run by one of Jiro’s sons (not the only one to enter the family business), given the longevity and dedication of their respective head chefs. I had sushi for lunch straight after the film, but I know it wasn’t a patch on Jiro’s. The Score: 8/10

Notorious  The second of my Hitchcock films of the week, and while still in black and white, this now benefits from the addition of sound. It also benefits from the addition of some of the finest stars to ever grace the silver screen, including Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. It has a fairly tortuous MacGuffin, but Notorious just goes to show why the details of those were never important, when the central love triangle is so strong. One of Hitchcock’s most successfully romantic films, it’s also a stunning example of just how good a director he was, getting supreme performances from his actors but also working his camera incredibly well, and the whole party sequence is an absolute joy and a thrill from start to finish. Grant and Bergman make a satisfying screen couple (due in no small part to Grant’s off screen coaching, apparently) and seeing it on the big screen confirmed its place in my top 5 Hitchcocks. The Score: 10/10

The Idiot  Another carry-over theme from Monday, this time the Estonian cinema thread, but unlike the previous day’s Temptation Of St. Tony I found The Idiot a somewhat frustrating experience. Based on the Dostoevsky novel of the same name, The Idiot is the story of a Russian prince who returns to his homeland after years away in an asylum in Switzerland. Once back, he manages to fall for not one but two women, and slowly but surely his innocence in such matters and the personalities of the two women start to make all of their lives unravel. The first act is strong, not only setting out the narrative clearly but with excellent staging and some nice touches, including a contemporary twang to the soundtrack. Sadly, as the film progresses the staginess takes over, the invention becomes more and more absent and the whole production becomes dry and airless.

By the last act, the courage of any convictions has been lost and certain scenes – for example, when one character sends another a hedgehog as a metaphor for their relationship – lack any sort of sense that they belong in the same film. (It would be worth mentioning that it was at this point I became slightly hysterical, which may be the reaction every time I see a hedgehog from now on.) If only the mood and inventiveness of the first third could have been maintained, The Idiot would have been excellent, but sadly it goes down as at best a brave attempt. The Score: 4/10

Anda Union  All of the other films in the festival I saw were showing at the spiritual home of the festival, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, but I had determined I would make one trip out to one of the other venues to take in a film. That turned out to be the last in a series of films showing at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, in this case a documentary about Mongolian music group Anda Union. I wasn’t 100% convinced about the venue; while the projection and sound that had been set up were excellent, my first attempt at a seat (in what could be best described as the stalls, in what was originally a Victorian theatre) left me craning my neck too much to see the screen, my second seat was behind a curtain with no view of the screen at all and my third had a flip chart board blocking half the screen. Thankfully the screening was only sparsely populated, otherwise I may have been struggling for a decent seat.

In terms of the film itself, the documentary tracks the group on a 10,000 kilometre journey across the steppes and plains as they meet with family and friends and take their music wherever they go. Showing everything from the production of their instruments through to concert footage, it’s a fascinating insight into a life in another world, and while there are no earth-shattering revelations from the footage following them travelling, the music itself is thrilling. It’s a mixture of string instruments and percussion, coupled with both throat singing and more conventional singing, and with track names like Ten Thousand Galloping Horses, the passion for their people and their culture shines through. The Score: 7/10

Sinister  Last up was my third visit to the Late Night Frights thread, for a haunted house chiller starring Ethan Hawke. The premise is stripped back to the bare bones, and all the more effective for it; Hawke plays a novelist who’s based his career on true crime investigation, but his last hit is disappearing into the distance at an ever increasing rate, and he’s going to increasing lengths to get a few more minutes of fame to add to the fifteen he’s already had. Alienating the police before he’s barely set foot in the town, he finds a box of Super 8 footage and a camera in the otherwise empty loft space, which hold the key to the horrors of more than he realises.

Sinister absolutely nails the atmosphere, and has the feel of a high end, high quality Stephen King adaptation about it. The last time I jumped out of my seat in the cinema was during Neil Marshall’s The Descent, so credit to Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill for causing my seat and I to part company. The one real flaw is with Hawke’s character, who has two unfortunate afflictions required to maintain the tension; he repeatedly makes poor decisions in terms of his own and his family’s safety, happy to hide behind an unspoken truth not being a lie, but that’s compounded by the fact that every single person in the audience will have put all the pieces together before his character does. If you can forgive these flaws, then Sinister is surprisingly creepy and well worth a late night visit. The Score: 7/10

Next time: with the home stretch in site, I’ll be covering days seven and eight, with more scares, more giraffes and some micro-budget cinema.

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