Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 10: Palo Alto, Violet, Shadows, The Flesh Of My Flesh

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Day 10 of the festival, and by now what would feel strange for most people has become normality for me. With no day off this year, I’ve seen at least three films every day, and reality for me has now just become a procession of images on which I sit in judgement in 90 minute chunks, interspersed with both private and public discussions about the films and occasionally discussions with people who’ve made the films themselves. I am clearly not looking for sympathy as this is all entirely self-inflicted, but it’s about this point when I normally question whether I ever want to do this to myself again. The answer, inevitably, is yes as in the five years I’ve been attending the festival, I’ve racked up 161 films in 55 days.

This is now achieved via meticulous planning: this was the third year that I’d pulled together a spreadsheet before the festival to map out my choices, when most other (normal) people also seeing films in volume at the festival tend to favour the paper and scribbling notes options for working out a schedule. (Hello to Hugh, Mike, Amanda, Bridget and anyone else I know who’s just recognised themselves in that last sentence – in some ways I envy you, but I can’t be without my tech.) But I also try to be malleable with my planning, always leaving myself open to the option of picking up another film to review for Take One or Bums On Seats or to catch a film that I’d not considered based on strong word of mouth from an earlier screening.

My plan for day 10 was probably the most fluid of the festival, and had been thrown into chaos the moment I’d gone into book my tickets and discovered that Maps To The Stars – a feature of the printed programme – had already been bumped to a week after the festival thanks to the demands of the Toronto Film Festival. So day 10 ended up being my most casual, unplanned day of the festival, but I still managed to slot in another four films to add to the tally.

Palo Alto

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First up was the latest film from the Coppola film making dynasty, in this case Gia Coppola. (In case you’re wondering, this makes her granddaughter to Francis Ford Coppola, niece to Sofia Coppola and cousin to Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzmann, to name but a few.) There’s more than one Hollywood family represented here, with both Val Kilmer and son Jack making appearances, and the lead role being taken by Emma “daughter of Eric, niece of Julia” Roberts. The screenplay is based on a collection of short stories published by James “brother of Dave” Franco in 2010 regarding his college experiences, and features Franco as the teacher giving special attention to Roberts’ student. Roberts is torn between the attentions of Franco and an unrequited crush on dopehead student Jack Kilmer. The other main plot strands features Zoe Levin as a sexually promiscuous student looking for something deeper and Teddy’s relationship with his volatile and unpredictable best friend (Nat Wolff).

I’ve seen a few reviews of this which have raved about it, and they tend to be from people in the same age range as the majority of those in the film. There’s nothing wrong with that – films can appeal to different age ranges, and I’m clearly not in the target demographic for either The Best Exotic Marigold or Pokemon: The Movie either – but while all of the story elements work, it didn’t quite engage me as I imagine it could have done if I was still at school or university age. The performances are good without being showy, it’s well photographed and Coppola is no slouch in the directing department but as a drama it never really gets out of third gear. Thankfully what could be seen as rampant cronyism doesn’t impact, but neither do any of the contributors truly set the screen alight or truly engage the viewer; the lethargy and aimlessness of teenage years might be well captured, but it can be difficult to sympathise with. This is a portrayal of a way of life, and it’s unlikely to be long remembered in the annals of high school or college drama, but it’s a mildly diverting watch.

The Score: 7/10

After watching Palo Alto on yet another screener, I diverted via Mill Road in Cambridge for the second of the festival’s Bums On Seats specials, where we dissected that film and the one to follow in my report – my fellow Bums raved about it, and you’ll find out in about two paragraphs if I agreed. It was also nice to see former host and Take One stalwart Jim Ross down for the weekends of the festival, and head bum Toby had assembled a strong team for both weekends.

Violet

Violet

Having watched a lot of sport when I was a child, I always tended to those sports which had directly measurable scores (e.g. score more goals or points than your opponent). Some sports are more subjective, relying on the judgement of impartial observers, and many will rate their competitors on both technical and artistic elements, and Violet is a film begging to be judged on both its practical and its dramatic aspects. First the filming of the story: director Bas Devos has filmed his debut feature in the Academy ratio – think old school square TV – and recruited the cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead, upcoming Tom Hardy drama The Drop), and has meticulously constructed each frame. Mostly employing locked off camera positions, from the first sequence – the murder of a young boy captured via a bank of CCTV cameras – Violet’s images are meticulously designed, often using that construction to emphasise the emotional response that Devos is looking to capture from his own script.

What that script is concerned with is understand the reaction of the surviving teenager Jesse (Cesar De Sutter). Jesse is witness to his friend’s sudden death and Violet follows his attempts to deal with the grief of this event and the reactions of those around him. Little explanation is available either to Jesse or to the audience as to what’s happened and who’s responsible, and Jesse’s gradual mental disintegration and increased alienation feel honest but it avoids simple resolutions. Those looking for detailed plotting or theatrics will be sorely disappointed; those who are looking for a deep and measured exploration of grief and personal relationships will find it enhanced, rather than diminished, by the technical skill on display and Violet gets deeply to the heart of how people struggle to deal with loss without some sense of closure. It would be no surprise to see most of this cast and crew following Karakatsanis into bigger things.

The Score: 8/10

Shadows

Shadows

The latter half of the festival saw a strand focusing on the work of Lionel Rogosin and his contemporaries. Rogosin was part of a movement of independent American cinema along with the likes of Morris Engel, Sydney Myers and John Cassavetes, and as part of the season the festival showed Cassavetes’ first film as a director, a black and white film in a pseudo-documentary style from 1959. I have fond memories of watching films with my mother as a child featuring Cassavetes the actor, such as The Dirty Dozen, but this was my first experience of Cassavetes the director. I’m aware of his other work, such as Gloria and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, and on the evidence of Shadows I look forward to catching up with it.

Shadows is a film that reflects the Beat Generation, using a fantastic jazz soundtrack and filling his cast with non-actors. It’s also a very personal film, based on his own experiences and desires at the time (with one slight physical exception: his lead, Ben Carruthers, is black). It wouldn’t be unkind to call it rough and ready: the editing and camerawork have an occasionally amateurish quality, but somehow that only adds to the wealth of charm that Cassavetes stirs up. For a film made in Fifties America, it’s not afraid to confront issues of race, but doesn’t get bogged down with them, and the predominant feeling is one of excitement. Claims on the end title card that the entire film was improvised may have been overstated, but it still carries a lot of power and it’s a shame that its position within the development of American cinema seems to have become a little forgotten. While I’m normally a proponent of watching films in the cinema, the whole film is on YouTube and is worth a watch if you’ve never seen it.

The Score: 8/10

Flesh Of My Flesh (La chair de ma chair)

Flesh Of My Flesh

My last film of the day was originally going to be Maps To The Stars, then got switched to Tommy Lee Jones’ latest The Homesman, and eventually I ended up seeing Flesh Of My Flesh. I can definitely say I preferred Maps To The Stars, which while not vintage Cronenberg has more of the demented glee of his early films in its second half of any of his films this century, while we’ll have to wait until November to get a chance at The Homesman. There are a couple of nice ideas in Denis Decourt’s film, where a woman appears to be luring men into a trap so she can dismember them and feed them to her young daughter, but what would be brilliant as a ten minute short is cripplingly over-extended at an hour and a quarter.

Anna Julianna Jaenner is the lead and bears a remarkably impassive face throughout, but by the end she’s spent so long staring impassively into the middle distance that it’s gone through parody and come out somewhere the other side. The camerawork and cinematography attempt to emphasise Jaenner’s state of mind, but since it’s implied there’s so little going on behind that glassy visage, it just reinforces the feeling of emptiness. An interesting experiment, but not really enough to sustain it as a full length feature.

(Additionally, this being shown in the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Saturday evening after 11 p.m., it was subjected to the sound leaking through from downstairs at the Wetherspoon’s bar during the quiet moments. I spoke to someone from another screening afterwards who had their showing of The Homesman disrupted by the sound of Cambridge’s least appealing nightclub, nestled as it is directly beneath the cinema, so you can imagine how a sort-of horror film with swathes of silence on the soundtrack fared. It did suggest occasionally that Jaenner might have been going mad, but it’s not the first time it’s happened and I might have to reconsider late weekend showings at future festivals for as long as Wetherspoon’s is in operation. Shame.)

The Score: 5/10

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