Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 9: Son Of Cain, People On Sunday, Pride

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If I have one concern about the effects of spending so much time sat in cinemas watching films, it’s the potential consequences to my ageing body of repeatedly squeezing myself into an assortment of cinema seats not designed for my lumbering frame. At a shade under 6′ 3″ and weighing in at a (slimmed down by 2 stone for the festival) 16 1/2 stone – or 1.9m and 105 kg in new money – I do have a few problems with cinema seats. For the Friday I was taking in three different screening options, and thankfully all avoided screens 2 and 3 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, which have straight rows of seats and require me to dangle my legs out the side ungracefully if I hope to stretch out.

For the first film, I was yet again taking in a screener, with the advantage of being able to lounge on the sofa at home with the laptop by my side. The second screening was a film showing over the road at Emmanuel College in what’s normally a lecture theatre, but at least the seats are padded. The third and final film had the advantage of being in screen 1 at the Arts Picturehouse, which has wings either side with staggered seating where I can dangle my long limbs out comfortably. Except to see Pride, I was taking up a press ticket rather than buying my own, and consequently had no say over where I sat.

For some reason, two weeks of sitting in cramped cinema seats has slowly turned my buttocks to mush and caused my legs to start to seize up. Over the previous few days, I’d increasingly gotten pain in my right knee, possibly some form of fluid around my kneecap, but a bit of stretching and “cracking” my knee seemed to relieve it. For Pride, I was in the middle of a row, and the cramped seating (cramped for me, fine for everyone else) meant that I ended up slowly shuffling through all kinds of knee-based contortions in an attempt to get the crucial crack, but it didn’t come and twenty minutes from the end I had to admit defeat and watch the end of the film standing at the back of the cinema, going through a range of stretches not seen since Jane Fonda was last in Lycra.

Normally this preamble before the reviews is just an attempt to set a theme, or to tune you into my normal waffly way of thinking, but in this case it’s valuable context: you need to read any of my thoughts on Pride bearing in mind that I was, for at least half an hour of the running time, in absolute searing agony, not normal conditions for film reviewing. With that all in mind, here’s my thoughts on the films of day 9.

Son Of Cain

Son Of Cain

Son Of Cain was another film from the Catalan season of films playing at the festival, and was another story of upper middle class marital difficulties. This time, many of the the tensions were created by the eldest child in the marriage Nico (David Solans), a young chess player who has more than a few difficulties with social niceties and who comes under suspicion when the family dog is involved in a rather gruesome accident. With his behaviour driving a wedge into their marriage, Carlos (Jose Coronado) and Coral (Maria Molins) reluctantly call in the services of psychiatrist Julio (Julio Manrique), who is himself a chess expert and instantly wipes the floor with Nico over a game on the chequered board. Julio and Nico engage in a battle of wills, despite the warnings of Julio’s old mentor Andrew (Jack Taylor) but what’s less clear is exactly who’s playing who and who will ultimately emerge triumphant.

Son Of Cain certainly has the courage of its convictions, and you feel where other, more Hollywood thrillers might play it safe director Jesus Monllao is keen to keep things dark. While sticking to the principles of the source novel Querido Cain, Monllao has taken the film strongly in the direction of a thriller. His trump card is Solans, who exudes an astonishing amount of menace for someone his age but still manages to keep his ultimate intentions ambiguous. Other than that it’s a fairly conventional thriller, well handled with only a few tricky kinks that aren’t quite convincingly navigated in some of the mid-film plot twists but as the pieces are put into position and Monllao moves to his endgame, Son Of Cain’s true depths are revealed and those with darker hearts should leave reasonably satisfied. It’s a taut 90 minutes that doesn’t outstay its welcome and you could easily envisage a Hollywood remake, if a casting director can find a Nico as convincing as Solans.

The Score: 7/10

People On Sunday

People On Sunday

One of the regular highlights of the festival over the past few years have been the visits of film historian and regular silent film accompanist Neil Brand. I saw him accompany a screening of classic Nosferatu last year, and as well as his regular Not-So-Silent Movies in the family strand he was back this year to accompany another film in the Gerhard Lamprecht season. This wasn’t a Lamprecht film itself but is from the same era, and actually bears the fingerprints of Billy Wilder on its screenplay. Along with Lamprecht, it was a part of the New Objectivity movement, effectively Germany’s neorealist reaction to the Expressionist movement, and Wilder’s script is a light and frothy examination of Berliners at play, in what with hindsight is the very definition of the calm before the storm and an innocent about to be devastatingly slept away.

That couldn’t be further from your mind when watching People On Sunday, and Neil Brand’s jazzy score lifted the vibrant day-in-the-life-of to thrilling heights. I do find myself on these occasions sitting as close to Neil as I can, and for the first five minutes during the montage of Berlin folk going about their daily lives I was sucked into watching Neil’s highly dexterous fingers dancing over the piano keyboard. Gradually my focus shifted to the film, and the Siodmak brothers’ lively direction feels a world away from the normal static transitions and staging of the contemporary films of the era. While it’s not exactly dangerously racy, you could imagine it feeling progressive at the time and Brand’s seemingly inexhaustible energy made it feel as if it could have been filmed last Sunday, not eight-five years ago.

The Score: 8/10

Pride

PRIDE

So, to my last film of the day (and remember, one watched in knee-related agony for large parts, slightly confusing my objectivity). There’s a dilemma that almost every review I’ve seen about this film is a rave, but it hasn’t exactly set the box office alight, and I’m not quite sure why that’s the case. On the first day of the festival, I reviewed The Woman Who Dares, a German film about a woman swimming the English Channel, and I commented at the time that it was of a genre that the British seem to do very well, the triumph over adversity mixed with social or economic difficulties, but not done as well as the British typically manage. Pride is a prime example of that genre, but made by the British, but there’s a problem with the subject matter that may be keeping audiences from giving it a chance – who wants to watch a film about miners?

So there’s a lot of positives to consider about Pride, the story of a lesbian and gay group that decide to show solidarity with another oppressed minority in Thatcherite Britain. Firstly it by and large is populated with characters that feel real, eschewing for the most huge stereotypes on either side. It’s not only full of positive gay role models, but also has a variety of strong roles for women who aren’t stick thin twentysomethings, including Jessica Gunning and Imelda Staunton. It avoids being heavily preachy or moralising, and it plays its overall arc very carefully, playing out the exact beats of the British working class triumph over adversity genre – or BWCTOA as I will now probably not call it. It’s honest with its emotions and, as with the best examples of the genre, there’s a thorough mix of emotions, most of which are well realised, with (only a spoiler if you’re spectacularly naive) a largely uplifting and positive ending.

There are just a few things in the negative column that keep it from true greatness. Its dealings with the actual social situation are sparse, and short of one brief shot of a picket line and repeated shots of unlabelled canned goods there’s no real sense of the miners’ struggle. It does occasionally fall into caricature (there’s a scene in a gay club that feels like a school disco) and it’s strangely neutered: when Eastenders managed a gay kiss only a few years after the time period portrayed here, public displays of affection from anyone, regardless of sexuality, are remarkably sparse. The direction would be flabby for a TV movie, never mind a cinema release, the nominal baddies are so poorly painted they each out to have moustaches to twirl and while the overall arc is well played some of the smaller character arcs, such as those of Andrew Scott and George Mackay, feel terribly rushed and the film ends up churning through them in rather ungainly fashion in the last half hour. There’s still a slight feeling that for a film promoting integration and acceptance, a good proportion of the characters haven’t learned that lesson by the end. And finally, the outcome seems more concerned with the socio-political ramifications of events than the characters themselves, which is at odds with a film that has so overburdened itself with characters that it doesn’t have time to consider those social aspects during the film, leaving a muddied feel.

Overall you have to consider Pride for its heart, and put aside somewhat the issues with its soul and its brain. It’s a film that may work better for those of an age that can remember living through the era and can fill in the gaps and make the necessary social adjustments. One thing is also clear: I’m neither gay nor a miner, so this film isn’t empowering any social class I fall into, and I’ve no doubt that the positivity of the message and the straightforwardness of many of the characters will be both appealing and empowering to many, and that’s fine. I just can’t help but feel that the final product had been assembled with slightly more care and attention.

The Score: 7/10

Thanks to a diary clash, I’d seen Son Of Cain on a screener and then seen Pride in the cinema. I was then interviewing the director of Son Of Cain, Jesus Monllao, for Take One and so dashed to the last ten minutes of that film to catch them on the big screen. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the director was a keen fan of the cinema and only seeing films in it (in case you missed it, that’s the entire point of this blog), and my embarrassment when I had to confess I’d only seen ten minutes of his film in the actual cinema.

He was just as great as all my other subjects had been, and after a solid half hour Q & A with the audience, I got my interview with him and also with the film’s composer, Ethan Maltby, which I only called to a halt when guilt around the director’s sleeping children on the sofa next to us got the better of me. I did have a host of other question I’d love to ask, so if you ever read this Jesus, and still aren’t too offended by me missing most of your film in the cinema, do get in touch. 🙂

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