Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Days 7 and 8

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Note to readers: although the festival finished a month ago, I am determined to get to the end of my write-up, so do bear with me. Many of the films on here haven’t yet seen a wide release, and I’ll be sure to point out the great and good here when – and if – they get a wider circulation.

When I was younger, I had a real love of many different things, but most of those were driven out of my one true love: numbers. Apparently I used to sleep around two hours a night and then sit up for the rest of it doing sums and driving my poor mother slowly crazy. (This was not helped when my sister came along two years later and slept for sixteen hours a night, regularly causing my mother to think she was dead. Who’d be a parent? But I digress.) As an example, I always loved cricket, but that love initally grew out of the wealth of statistics and record-keeping that surround the sport, and I would never be seen at my local county ground without a copy of Wisden or another almanac to refer to. Then as I grew older, my appreciation of the game, of reverse swing, googlies and a stout forward defensive took hold, and now I love cricket for the game itself, rather than for the numbers that go with it.

With film, it’s been almost the reverse process. Over the last twenty years I have slowly but surely developed an increasing love of the form, which started to peak in 2008 when I made my first trip to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, now practically my second home. However, I also discovered at this time the ability of websites to catalogue and record what I’d seen, and then to be able to use spreadsheets to analyse my own viewing patterns. Film itself is still the main love, but again the statistics have become a nice personal sideline.

For anyone following my Twitter feed, they’re hopefully used to this by now, or would have unfollowed long since. But it was during this period that I hit a number of personal milestones, including the most cinema films I’d ever seen in a calendar month (I ultimately achieved 50 in September), the second most I’d seen in a calendar year (127 in 2010; my record of 164 last year is now just six films away at time of writing) and the most films I’d seen at the festival (beating the 19 of 2010 and the 27 of last year).

But the one thing I’ve always tried to do is to maintain the quality level; there’s no point in setting out to see a certain number of films if you’re not going to get something from them. I went into days seven and eight with high hopes, and there were a couple of real gems, but again it proved to be something of a mixed bag.

Here, then, is my write up for Wednesday 19th September.

Bestiaire If you’re a fan of animal documentaries, then Bestiaire may appeal to you, but what documentarian Denis Côté has produced is less a David Attenborough-style insight into the inner workings and social developments of the animal kingdom, and something more akin to the world’s most expensive live action animal screensaver. Côté mixes footage of the zoo animals with that of their human handlers, and there are occasional profound or witty observations that arise naturally out of the footage captured, but the simple footage, lacking narrative, voiceover or any other directive techniques, leave Bestiaire sorely lacking in real insight. The Score: 5/10

Reported Missing (Die Vermissten)  Jan Speckenbach brought his modern morality tale to the festival’s contemporary German stream (although regrettably, the need for food prevented me for staying for his Q & A). When a 16 year old girl goes missing, her estranged father is called in to help find her, but the more he investigates, the more he discovered disturbing patterns of behaviour among more and more children of her age. Speckenbach both writes and directs, and weaves a modern take on a familiar fable which becomes more interesting the more it reveals itself. The first act is somewhat glacial and unfocused, but slowly the treads are drawn taut and there’s a moderately chilling comment on the position of youth in society and our responses to them within it all. The Score: 6/10

Frank  The Microcinema strand saw the debut feature from music video director Richard Heslop, starring Darren Beaumont as Frank, a troubled loner who struggles with the reality of life around him, but finds friendship only in a young girl that lives next door with her collection of snails. When he finds Fidel on a beach, he takes him home and attempts to form another relationship, but Fidel proves unusual company and soon Frank finds himself more tormented than ever. It’s an assured debut from Heslop, with an unusual mixture of black comedy, deep feeling and stunning imagery, capturing the bleakness and the beauty of the surroundings perfectly. It’s difficult at the best of times to capture mental illness successfully on screen, but Frank looks at a number of aspects of the psyche and manages in them to find some surprising shades of both light and dark. Darren Beaumont is excellent as Frank, and is well supported both Con O’Neill as the brusque house guest Fidel, but it’s Heslop who’s the real star, and hopefully his first feature will be just the start of a longer career in full length features.

Following the film there was another Q & A, which included writer / director Heslop and star Beaumont, the first revelation for me was that I’d been sat two seats away from Beaumont for the duration of the entire film and actually spoken to him before the film started. Getting over that shock, it was fascinating but also somewhat frustrating to hear the struggles that Heslop even had to get the film in front of the cameras, and the struggle to get it to a wider audience. Here’s hoping Frank finds one, even though it might be an acquired taste for some. The Score: 9/10

Sleep Tight  My fourth Late Night Fright of the festival was the new thriller from Jaume Balagueró, director of the first two [Rec] films and starring Luis Tosar as the janitor at an apartment block who isn’t quite the dutiful custodian that he first appears. Taking advantage of his position, he’s a silent participant in the night time life of resident Clara, but his motives are more clouded than first appears. However, he’s attracted a certain amount of attention – including another nosy girl in the block – and it could be only a matter of time before his night time visits are discovered. Balagueró works the tension of the situation masterfully, Alberto Marini’s script manages to throw up a few surprises and Tosar succeeds in switching from genial to creepy at the drop of a hat. Sleep Tight may well have you checking the wardrobe and under the bed before you put the lights out. The Score: 8/10

That was Wednesday. I always try to work in some form of rest day at some point in the festival, so most of Thursday consisted mainly of sleeping as I tried to deal with the effects of doing little but eating, travelling and watching films. However, refreshed and revitalised, I headed back for a further round of films in the evening. These were my selections for Thursday 20th September.

Yossi  From Before Sunset to Clerks II, there’s been a small trend in recent years to visit characters in dramas after a long break. It would seem that our perpetual diet of sequel and follow-ups has given us a taste for living longer lives with characters from even the smallest dramas. Following this trend, Eytan Fox has decided to revisit the character of Yossi from his 2002 film Yossi & Jagger, a tale of two gay men in the Israeli military. Although the fact that there’s no Jagger in the title might be considered a spoiler for the original, Yossi covers enough ground of its own for those who haven’t seen the original. The older, more mature but now deeply repressed and frustrated Yossi we find in 2012 is struggling to find happiness, but discovers both the possibility for closure through a chance encounter at the hospital where he now works. Yossi works on two levels, further exploring the social stigma still associated with homosexuality and the effect on family relationships, but also working in the style of last year’s Weekend as a frank, honest and affectionate modern relationship movie that just happens to star two men. The sight of Yossi and his new suitor Tom walking and talking together while Tom sits on a ride-along toy giraffe was, for me, one of the highlights of the festival. The Score: 8/10

All Divided Selves  The line between art and film is a tricky one to judge. Luke Fowler has made a number of works looking at the life and career of Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing over the past few years and this latest work has gained a higher profile by virtue of its nomination for this year’s Turner Prize. Fowler has assembled a mixture of newly shot footage, mainly used to construct the mood and to suggest further themes from Laing’s ideals, into a collage of comprehensive archive footage which takes a no-holds barred look at Laing, his public perception and tries to understand to some extent whether his ideas remain relevant. Psychiatry seems to be a very opinionated science, grounded much more in theory than hard fact and Fowler plays with that idea, never allowing the film to settle on a definitive view of Laing, but as a consequence it’s hard to escape the feeling that this works better where it’s showing as an art installation than it does as a feature film; on the big screen, it’s the more direct archive footage, especially a bitter confrontation with Irish talk show host Gay Byrne, that proves most compelling.

Life then had a decent stab at imitating art in the Q & A afterwards, when in one uncomfortable moment a writer for the Festival’s in house publication asked, among other things, why Fowler had refused them an interview, to which Fowler again refused to respond. While I’m not sure that question would have ever been answered in that context, one can only hope that Mr Fowler is able to give slightly more graceful declines to questioning than the one he gave that evening.

The Hidden Face (La cara oculta)  Spanish horror has seen a resurgence in the last few years, and this creepy thriller was the last of my Late Night Fright of the festival. Somehow I could have seen this being an episode of the old Seventies series Tales Of The Unexpected, with the creepy atmosphere slowly ramped up, but the South American country setting feeling oddly remote and almost otherworldly. Quim Gutierrez plays a conductor whose girlfriend has left him, but when he quickly takes up with a new woman he finds himself quickly a suspect in the disappearance of his former lover. While director Andrés Baiz manages to stir up a reasonable atmosphere through subtle scares in the first half of the film, there are two main problems: the central conceit not only requires a certain lack of awareness of their surroundings, but also that you swallow it without question. More than that, the major reveal, which in a better film would come nearer the end and allow you to join the dots yourself, here comes too soon and replays too many events; second time around, the film gradually deflates and sucks energy out of what could have been a powerful ending. The Score: 6/10

Next time: I reach the final weekend of the festival, with icebergs, cross-dressing and Zac Efron in a hat.

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