Cambridge Film Festival

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 11: Otel·lo, On The Bowery, The Grandmaster

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Day 11, the final day of the festival, and always a day of mixed emotions. I can still remember my first festival, back in 2010, when all I was doing was watching films, but even so it had been a day to remember: I met the director of a film I was watching for the first time, asked some of my first ever Q & A questions, saw my first surprise film and rounded the day off with Made In Dagenham. As I made my way back to the car park, it was a strange feeling that I’d been to the cinema for nine out of the previous ten days, and I almost didn’t want to leave. Doing so was an admission that this beautiful season of culture and film education was at an end, and normal life was about to rudely intrude once again.

And that year I saw just nineteen films, had only passing conversations with strangers and the four films I saw on the last day were the most I saw on any day that year. In 2014, I needed to see only three films on the final day to take my total for the year to forty. In addition, I’d interviewed two directors and a composer, hosted a Q & A and had seen a host of people at the festival either every day or nearly so. For me, although I have upgraded from casual observer to amateur journalist and now watch a total of films that surely would allow me to move my bed in, it’s like a strange film family. I saw more of around two dozen people, including cinema staff, trust staff, fellow Bums On Seats and Take One contributors and general cinephiles, than I did of my wife during the festival, and to suddenly cut yourself off from that extended family can become hard.

It was all the more strange when I arrived at the cinema to find it practically deserted. Once the crowds from the second sold-out screening of the Frozen sing along had subsided, the festival had become eerily quiet. There were still reasonably crowds in many of the screenings, but for much of the day the bar was quiet enough that tumbleweeds wouldn’t have seemed out of place and the hustle and bustle of the first days of the festival had hustled and bustled itself out. The good news was that the move forward of the festival (by about three weeks) had generated the desired effect, and takings were 20-30% up on the previous year. The festival is once again in rude health, and with the campaign to keep the cinema as an art house establishment seemingly to reach a successful conclusion within weeks, the future of the festival seems assured.

But I still had one day to get through, and a late night on day 10 meant a screener to watch on Sunday morning before making an appearance at the cinema. In the end, I managed three and a bit films on the final day, hitting my total of forty, but as with the previous day my programme had ended up being somewhat fluid. On arriving at the Arts Picturehouse I ran into festival director Tony Jones, looking for someone to do a Q & A after the scheduled hoster had to drop out due to unforeseen circumstances, but it was for the Rogosin season and I’d only managed to see Shadows, so felt it was better left to someone more expert in such matters.

Otel·lo

Othelo

The last of my selections from the year’s Catalan film strand, and a significant departure from the themes of the other films I’d seen. It was also a step into the unknown: there’s nothing like reviewing a film based on one of the most famous plays in the world by possibly the most famous playwright in the world when you haven’t seen the play. Thankfully there’s this wonderful thing these days called the internet which allowed me to do a bit of background research: Cliffs Notes suggests that the key themes include love, jealousy and the difference between appearance and reality. What Hammudi Al-Rahmoun Font’s film works as is both primer to the core themes of Othello and a reflection on them, as Othello effectively becomes the play within the play. The film’s structured around just showing the filming of key scenes from the director’s perspective and the methods he uses to get the most from his cast; methods which bear an uneasy parallel to the manipulations at work in Othello itself.

Despite filming a significant amount of footage, the final cut of this film is barely an hour and a quarter, but the director’s choice of both scenes and his filming style are well judged. The niggling question at the back of my mind was, “why haven’t the cast twigged that their director is manoeuvring them in the same way as the characters in the play?” The feasible answer within the construct of the drama is that the actors are all first timers and become so engrossed in what they’re being asked to achieve that it would never occur to them. What results has a raw intensity and captures just the key messages that Shakespeare set out to encapsulate, but in a much more concentrated form. A twist in the tale at the very end is perhaps unsurprising, but still kept me thinking about the film for some time afterwards.

The Score: 8/10

After catching the end of the film again in the cinema, I then diverted to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality, the first film from the Chilean writer / director in nearly twenty-five years. For some reason, this surreal treat wasn’t striking a chord with me in the way that The Distance had done a few days earlier, so my phone quietly vibrated with a text during the screening I decided to duck out and see who it was from.

It was another appeal to find someone to host the Q & A for the Rogosin screening later that afternoon. So I had seen Shadows the day before, the John Cassavetes debut feature, but I’d not managed to see any of the actual Lionel Rogosin films such as Come Back, Africa showing during the festival. There also wasn’t a screener for On The Bowery or the documentary following it, or indeed time to watch either as the showings started in less than an hour. Also, the Q & A was with the documentarian, and son of Lionel Rogoson, Michael Rogosin. The only option would be to watch the film and the documentary during the screening and then leap straight into the Q & A. And, being the last day of the festival, everyone else was either already committed to other events or had departed for their regularly scheduled lives. So, sensing there was no other sensible option, I said yes, then started Googling the bejesus out of American independent cinema in the half hour I had left.

On The Bowery

On the Bowery

So, first things first: On The Bowery is a forgotten piece of American cinema history. I’ve been expanding my knowledge of cinema history this year with the likes of Bicycle Thieves and Jules Et Jim, and you can see a clear through line between the subject matter and setting of the more desperate end of Italian neorealist cinema such as the former, to the grand stylings and intimacy of the latter (via other American independents such as John Cassavetes’ Shadows which I had seen the day before). Remarkably it was Rogosin’s first film, after he’d decided to become a crusader against the evils of racism and fascism, and he learned his craft on the job; I can only be very jealous as he has a natural insight into the characters that populated the Bowery and how best to capture them, spending the better part of a year of his life in the environment to better know his subjects.

Rogosin’s film deals with the intersecting lives of three drifters, one of whom (Ray Salyer) comes to the Bowery only to be relieved of his possessions by another (Gorman Hendricks), and we bear witness to the depths of poverty into which the likes of Ray and Gorman have sunk or been dragged. Rogosin is fascinated with the appearance of his charges, his camera staring deep into every crag and crease on the worn faces of these desperate men, but despite the honesty of Rogosin’s venture into the live of these unfortunates it never pities and his film retains a remarkable dignity.

Despite the quality of the film (it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar and also picked up the documentary award at the Venice Film Festival), the subject matter didn’t sit well with audiences and Rogosin’s films never achieved the kind of commercial success that their quality probably deserved. Michael Rogosin has produced a documentary which looks at the production, legacy and reception of the film and for those attempting to piece together an education in film such as myself, this was the ideal accompaniment to his father’s film, giving a comprehensive context to the film and its place in American cinema history.

The Score: 9/10

The Q & A with Michael Rogosin after the film ran for about twenty minutes, and thankfully the film had given both me and the compact audience plenty to chew over, and Michael was more than happy to answer any questions. I also then took the opportunity to have a further chat with him in the bar over a drink after the session finished, where I think he was just as keen to understand about the local film scene and education possibilities as I was to understand his experience. All in all, both the films and the Q & A were a delight and it’s great that the Cambridge Film Festival continues to attract guests of this calibre and quality, even if they then let the likes of me loose on them.

Following that, I arrived at my fortieth and final film of the festival. I’ve always taken in the surprise film in the five years I’ve been at the festival, whether there were one or two, and despite a great variance in quality of the films I’d seen in previous years – for the record, my previous surprise films were Chico & Rita, Contagion, The Debt, Looper, Sunshine On Leith and The Trials Of Muhammed Ali – but this year, the two surprise films were scheduled against each other so it came down to a choice. I plumped for screen 1 on the simple basis that the bigger film was likely to be playing in the bigger screen.

Much of the fun is in trying to guess the film, but with other major festivals in the calendar at similar times such as Toronto, Venice, New York and London, chances were that most studios wouldn’t be prepared to give a major release to a festival the size of Cambridge. Of course, surprise films can be a curse as well as as blessing to film festivals, especially . Take the surprise film at the London Film Festival in 2013: Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster arrived in a significantly different version, to the great consternation of most of the audience. Despite being a major release from one of China’s foremost international directors, the Weinstein fingerprints all over the edit ended up being the major topic of discussion.

So what would the surprise film for Cambridge 2014 be?

Surprise Film 1: The Grandmaster – Weinstein Cut

The Grandmaster Zhang Ziyi

Oh.

Having been stuck in release hell, Wong’s more austere and dramatic take on the life of Ip Man than the martial arts movies that have previously been released arrived in Cambridge in the shorter cut. First to the differences: Ip Man might be most relatable to Western audiences as the man who trained Bruce Lee, but the original played down these links, focused on the life of Ip (played here by Tony Leung) and clocked in at 130 minutes. The Weinstein version trims down Ip’s life a little, adds more detail around his relationship with a rival’s daughter (Zhang Ziyi) and more of the status of Ip’s method Wing Chun among the various varieties of kung fu and adds a huge amount of explanatory intertitles to make the plot more digestible for Western audiences. The other main change is to trim the film down to a more compact 108 minutes.

What we’re left with is a film with a series of martial arts sequences that vary wildly in quality, interspersed with dramatic sequences that vary even more wildly in their understanding of what drama is. Despite employing the most renowned fight choreographer in the business, Yuen Woo-ping, the cinematography and staging of a couple of the earlier sequences render them dull and confusing. More crucially, the front-loading of what exposition has been culled from Wong’s original vision leaves the first act leaden and clumpy, and the intertitles are so frequent in the last act the film verges on patronising. When Leung and Zhang are on screen together, the film often soars, but it’s too regularly dragged down by decisions made in the editing room to placate the perceived needs of Western viewers. Whether we’ll ever get the original 130 minute cut to be able to compare and contrast is debatable, but this version of The Grandmaster is a mixed blessing. The decision to show it as the surprise film here in this version, after the reception it received at London last year, can only diplomatically be described as brave.

The Score: 6/10

And that’s it for another year. It’s taken me more than a month after the festival to get everything written up, but after two years of failing miserably to document the entirety of the festival for the last two years, I was determined to get to the end this year, long after most sensible people had stopped caring and moved on with their lives. Thanks to everyone involved with the Cambridge Film Trust that put together the festival, the staff of the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse for their moral support when my spirit was flagging, to Bums On Seats and Take One for once again allowing me to contribute, and finally to everyone who was simply there doing what I was doing – trying to soak up as many films as possible – and who were just willing to make conversation about what they’d seen. It wouldn’t be the same without you all. See you at the festival in 2015.

I’ll end with my list of the best films, both old and new, from the forty I saw for this year’s festival.

Top 5 new films shown at the festival

1. Stations Of The Cross

2. Cherry Tobacco

3. 20,000 Days On Earth

4. Night Moves

5. Violet

Top 5 re-releases or classic films shown at the festival

1. M

2. On The Bowery

3. Down By Law

4. Frozen Sing Along

5. Inferno 3D

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

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. 🙂

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 8: Night Will Fall, We All Want What’s Best For Her, Creature From The Black Lagoon 3D

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I don’t know about you, but I love to speculate what’s behind those doors in buildings that you never normally get to go behind. Often they’ll have a sign marked “Private” or “Keep Out”; sometimes, even more mysteriously, there is no sign, you just can’t go in. I’d been a customer at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse for four years and had climbed the four flights of stairs from the kiosk level hundreds of times in those years, two flights to the mezzanine then two more to the entrance to the screens, but the stairs carry on past that and I’d often idly speculated what might be beyond the reach of normal man: maybe a room with a lady and one next door with a tiger, perhaps a room full of powerful supercomputers with blinking lights playing chess to hone their warmongering skills, or perhaps a backdoor to Narnia. As it turns out, it’s the offices of the Cambridge Film Trust who, among other things, organise the festival (and not, as many people seem to believe, the Picturehouse itself). It’s also the access to projection and consequently as offices and doorways go only moderately exciting – although I have heard mysterious rumours of some form of super-toilet that exists even further beyond these sacred boundaries – but there are still plenty of unexplored doorways, nooks and crannies for me to continue with my unfounded speculation.

Possibly the least exciting door is an anonymous battle green door just between the ticket station and the lift on the same floor as the entrance to the screens. Behind that door, for most of the duration of the festival, reside the hard working volunteers of Take One and Bums On Seats, the unbiased critical mouthpieces of festival coverage in print and on radio, and I was giving my time to both during the festival while watching films and also trying (and failing) to keep on top of this blog. It’s a windowless room covered in the posters of past festival conquests, it has little lighting and after eight days being full of perspiring writers, it was becoming just a little oppressive. It also had acquired two extra tables after a meeting the previous day, meaning there was now only a tiny gap to walk round at the circumference of the room with a lot of unused table in the middle.

The best part is the fact that, despite spending all day in what known for the festival as the writer’s room, I got relatively little actual writing done that day. I did manage to complete two Take One reviews, but I managed a grand total of six lines for this blog, which is barely even a thought in the context of my usual outpourings. The rest of the day consisted of chatting with the steady stream of other writers and festival peeps coming in for a chat or to escape the horrors of their latest film, and I’m far too easily distracted by passers-by / bright lights / doughnuts (I may have provided the doughnuts so I have only myself to blame). I also managed to squeeze some films into my hectic schedule of chatting / cooing at bright lights / eating doughnuts.

Night Will Fall

Night Will Fall

I’d made an effort to get in early for this, the story of the restoration and compilation of what could turn out to be one of the most significant documentaries of the 20th century. As Allied forces began the liberation of German concentration camps in 1945, what they found was horrifying beyond words and beyond imagination, so the decision to film it cannot have been taken lightly. Nonetheless, not only was footage taken from camps including Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz, but producer Sydney Bernstein was employed to compile the footage into a documentary called “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey”, for which he enlisted the help of Alfred Hitchcock. Eventually the Americans produced a film with Billy Wilder’s involvement which was much more of a propaganda piece, and the Bernstein / Hitchcock collaboration never saw the light of day.

Now, nearly seventy years later, Night Will Fall also features interviews with the historians at the Imperial War Museum who have sought to finish what they started (the documentary itself is now also making its way into festivals). The original intent of the documentary wasn’t propaganda, it was to provide a permanent testament to the true horrors that had taken place, often just a few miles from built-up areas that had done their best to remain oblivious to what was happening. Watching dead bodies being carted about like rags and dumped into massive pit graves is possible the most troubling thing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen, but there’s much more to this documentary than that. While it will be vital for the world to see the finished film – and then never to forget what it shows – to also show how the film came about, and then the reasons why it was quietly buried at the time add further important historical context. Just occasionally it feels like an extended “making of” for a DVD, but overall Night Will Fall is an immediate and devastating insight into the end of the world’s worst conflict.

The Score: 8/10

We All Want What’s Best For Her (Tots molem el villor per a ella)

We All Want What's Best For Her

There’s been a strong Catalan film presence at the festival over the past few years, throwing up some little hidden gems and often shining a pervasive light on the people of the region. We All Want What’s Best For Her is very much a film of class difficulty, in this case the struggles of Geni (Nora Navas), a woman on the cusp of her forties who is slowly rehabilitating herself after a car crash a year earlier. Her family and friends want to see her back to a normal life, but can’t avoid treating her with kid gloves and don’t understand that the life she had no longer feels as if it’s the life she still wants. A chance encounter with an old friend at a group job interview stirs up old feelings, and may give her the chance to make the kind of connection with someone that she’s struggling to rekindle with her husband.

We All Want What’s Best For Her could best be described as a coming of age film for the mid-life crisis generation. It’s given an interesting spin by both the Catalan backdrop, which provides a further layer of smothering tension for Geni to privately rail against, and also by the subtle way in which Navas shows the lingering effects of her accident. Director Mar Coll isn’t big on theatrics, preferring to work in gentle shades of character but her sympathies clearly lie with Geni as pretty much everyone else is shown to be at increasing odds with her. That’s not to say that Geni is by any means perfect, and it’s the character flaws and foibles that make for the most engaging moments. It’s not a drama to set pulses racing, but the last handful of scenes certainly reflect Coll’s skill in setting up our own doubt around Geni’s state of mind, and thanks to Nora Navas’ complex portrayal you’re left with a fair amount to chew over afterwards.

The Score: 7/10

After the screening there was a Q & A with the director Mar Coll, who I then interviewed for Take One magazine. Mar was lovely, although she had concerns in the Q & A that she wasn’t on occasions grasping the meaning of certain points (completely unfounded, as her English was brilliant), but when I approached her after the screening I discovered that my own voice was far too quick and too quiet for her to understand a word I was saying! Thankfully I put my radio voice on for the interview, and apart from one moment when I look myself down a question-based cul-de-sac where I didn’t actually know what I was trying to ask, Mar was a delightful interviewee.

Creature From The Black Lagoon 3D

Creature From The Black Lagoon

Last up on day 8 of the festival was the third and final film I saw in the Retro 3D season, and one that’s not quite held up as well as House Of Wax or Inferno that I saw earlier. Going hunting for further evidence of unusual fossilised remains, a group of scientists ends up being attacked on the Amazon by a living version of the very creature they’re seeking. The 3D is impeccable, as it was with the previous films, and this is a film that’s been released over the years in both the original polarised version and also the funny-coloured-glasses version, so it’s become something of a standard bearer for the medium. There are a selection of throw things in your face moments, but they’re never quite as effective and the scenery doesn’t make best use of the depth of field that 3D offers.

There are a couple of other problems: while iconic, the creature itself never quite carries the threat it could or should, having a little too much of the feeling of a man in a funny suit. More than that, though, it’s the human characters that fail to retain your interest for as long as they should, with little in terms of character or development other than the stock traits they’re given at the get-go. Sure, there’s fun to be had here, but I can’t quite develop the fondness for this creature that I may have done had I seen it when younger and with more innocent eyes: it may be that Creature From The Black Lagoon is just a little too innocent once the thrill of the 3D has worn off.

The Score: 6/10

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 7: The Distance, Stations Of The Cross, Down By Law

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When coming to the festival, part of the joy is being able to find previously undiscovered treats in the rather thorough exploration of European cinema that takes place each year. What it can also become is a test of your nerve as a reviewer. This blog is, as always, painfully behind (I’m sat writing it almost two weeks after the festival has finished, having started it on the last afternoon of the festival), but I’ve done a huge amount of other writing, radio and generally putting myself about the place. I’d say about half of the films I’ve seen only had a limited supply of reviews online, sometimes just two people and a dog that happened to see it at the last festival it played at while it tries to get enough momentum to get a release, but you can watch films free of other people’s expectations.

The flip side of that is that, by doing the kind of things I do, you actually become the expectation setter. The moment you form an opinion and put it online, someone else will use that opinion as part of their cultural barometer and in the case of festival films, there’s even a chance you might be their only opinion. I created a Letterboxd list of all of the feature films playing at the festival, but I’ve had to add two of those myself so I am currently the only opinion former on the whole site. That’s one thing when you’re just slapping on a star rating but entirely another when you’re cobbling together half a thousand words to explain your deepest thinking on why this unheard of film is a masterpiece / turd / just OK.

What the Wednesday of Cambridge Film Festival 2014 turned out to be was my best day of the festival in terms of quality – at least as far as I saw it.

The Distance (La distancia)

The Distance

Upon reading through the descriptions in the brochure for the festival, there was one that stood out above any other. Here it is verbatim:

An extraordinary and fascinating film Distance is further proof that Sergio Caballero is an idiosyncratic talent setting new boundaries in cinema. Essentially a heist movie, but like no other. Three Russian dwarves are sent to rescue a performance artist in an abandoned Siberian power station where strange things are happening. The dwarves communicate through telepathy and have telekinetic powers that allow them to move objects, hear long distances and communicate across continents.

If you’re not instantly sold by that description, then you may be reading the wrong blog. If I were to be reductive, then I would describe it as Ocean’s Three with telepathic dwarves in a loose interpretive remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker; but I’m not a fan of reductionism so forget I ever said that.

I’ll be honest, though, for while I loved The Distance it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s moody and understated, with the humour erring on the dark side, but fans of surrealism like myself it’s a beautiful playground in which Caballero continually finds new ways of subverting your expectations. It’s difficult to judge elements such as performance because none of the three dwarves are Russian, instead their telepathic thoughts are dubbed over by Russian speakers, and they are not alone: for example, there’s a Japanese bucket with a fondness for haiku poems. What makes The Distance work is its strict adherence to the heist movie structure, with title cards indicating the dates and that keeps the movie just about grounded enough to allow the coterie of strange characters and the twisted plot elements to work.

The film also played with a short, Ancha es Castilla / N’importe quoi, which couldn’t be further removed from the main feature. If The Distance is an extended David Lynch fever dream played out in a desolate Spanish landscape very effectively doubling for Siberia with high production values, then Ancha is like a discarded Reeves and Mortimer cut scene with no production values whatsoever. It’s an exorcism story told with characters who are made out of food, and who are occasionally played by people dressed up as food, and it’s the excitable, grungier younger brother to its more austere feature cousin. Apparently Caballero’s first movie, Finisterrae, is a road movie for ghosts, played by two people wearing sheets with eyes, one of whom rides a horse. Sold!

Audience reaction: I saw this on a screener, and was doing other things at the cinema the following evening, so just popped in for a brief period. You can always tell when an audience isn’t quite engaged through the amount of shuffling and throat clearing going on, and when some of the other Take One writers emerged the reactions ranged from bored to perplexed to freaked out. But I loved it, and that’s all that matters here.

The Score: 9/10

Stations Of The Cross (Kreuzweg)

Stations Of The Cross

Dietrich Brüggemann’s film, written with his sister Anna, is composed of fourteen largely static takes in single shots, intended to evoke the fourteen stations which adorn so many church naves and which tell the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death. The stations in churches provide an opportunity for Christians to meditate on the suffering and sacrifice which they believe the Son of God endured, and Brüggemann’s stations deal with the suffering and torment of a teenage girl, Maria, approaching her confirmation service in a church still attempting to adhere to a stricter Catholic doctrine than the church of Rome. This more fundamental approach to life sees Maria ostracised by most of her classmates for not exercising at school to what she believes to be demonic music (and which is actually Roxette’s The Look, so maybe she has a point). Other than one young friend who appears to have romantic leanings for her but who attends a more liberal church with gospel music (also demonic), Maria has no outlet for her frustrations and the oppressive attitude of her puritanical mother, mixed with her interpretations of her pastor’s religious teachings, send her down a dark, tragic path.

Brüggemann seems not to be judgemental of faith itself, but of the consequences of unquestioning acceptance of religious dogma and the interpretation of faith. Full disclosure: I am a Christian, but a fairly liberal one (as are some of the minor characters here, each of whom is portrayed as more tolerant and reasoning than Maria’s family and church) but I don’t think you need to have a faith of your own to appreciate the message Stations Of The Cross is imparting. The fixed shots serve a variety of purposes: as well as imitating the “moment in time” of the tableaux of the stations, there’s a claustrophobia to the scenes almost as if Maria’s fate is inescapable, and the dramatic tension on the few occasions when the camera is allowed to pan or track are intensified. Brüggemann also draws two outstanding performances from his leads, Lea van Acken as the tormented Maria and Franziska Weisz as her overbearing mother, and despite the inevitability of the outcome almost from the first scene, Stations Of The Cross expertly explores themes of society, faith and family and composes a searing drama in the process.

Audience reaction: While I was on my own with The Distance, the consensus of those I spoke to after the festival was that this was one of the films of the festival. Thankfully it’s back in cinemas for a limited release late in November and not just confined to the festival.

The Score: 9/10

Down By Law

Down By Law

By this point in the week, it can become difficult to remember my own name or where I live, so I’d ask anyone whom I told that Down By Law was taking my Jim Jarmusch virginity to forgive me; I had completely forgotten this year’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which may yet secure a place in the hallowed Top 40 of the year in a few months. Having forgotten that may be why I had this perception of Jarmusch films being dour and introspective, which on the evidence of these two is totally unfair. Down By Law brings together three criminals, a disc jockey (Tom Waits) and a pimp (John Lurie) who have both been set up for crimes they didn’t commit, and Bob (Roberto Benigni) who’s an Italian tourist imprisoned for manslaughter. The three are pulled away from their normal lives and Waits and Lurie allow their frustrations to drive them to blows before Benigni suggests an escape plan and the three go on the lam in the bayou.

You may or may not subscribe to the idea that most stories have a three act structure (and I’m at risk of being reductive again), but Down By Law certainly has three distinct moods. Jarmusch shifts effortlessly through the gears from the downbeat broodiness of the characters’ civilian lives, to the bickering of the prison and eventually to an almost romanticised fantasy of the countryside post-escape, but at every turn there’s a simmering undercurrent of danger and uncertainty. It looks fantastic, even with the monochrome palette, and also sounds great thanks to Waits’ bookending songs and it’s all hugely enjoyable for a variety of reasons. Waits, Lurie and Begnini make the most unlikely of trios, but Jarmusch will have you rooting for them as they flee their prison (and how strange to have a prison movie with no interest in the actual mechanics of the escape, which all happens off screen), and any movie which can make you root for Roberto Benigni must be doing something very right.

Audience reaction: For a film shown at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, the buzz of the audience as they left the screening was testament to just how well Jarmusch’s film holds up now, nearly thirty years later.

The Score: 9/10

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 6: M, Slums Of Berlin, 20,000 Days On Earth, Nekromantik

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I try to get as much variety as I can through the course of the festival each year, ideally seeing at least one film from every strand playing at the festival. This year’s festival is slightly more compact, generally across three venues, and at time of writing my plan for the festival ticked at least one box in every list.

Some of these seasons are more prominent than others at certain points; what I ended up with on the festival’s middle day was a convergence of German films. However, despite there being a Contemporary German season (a reliable staple of the festival over the last few years) which I’ve already seen films from this year, Tuesday was made up of my first film from the Gerhard Lamprecht season, a restoration of a cinema classic and an advanced preview of a notorious horror that’s just been classified by the BBFC for the first time. Just for variety, I also threw in the Nick Cave documentary that I keep wanting to call a Nick Cage documentary, but that’s something else entirely.

M

M

First up was the 1931 classic starring Peter Lorre which has just undergone a restoration and arrived at the festival looking pristine, all the better to appreciate the shades of light and dark in what’s held up as Fritz Lang’s masterpiece – no mean feat when the German expressionist director’s list of works also includes Metropolis. M was Lang’s first talking film, although he still has periods of silence within the film (something the restoration has apparently taken great pains to get right), and he makes great use of the opportunities that both sound and the contrasting silence represent.

Lorre doesn’t appear directly on screen until quite a way into the film, although his presence is felt ominously thorough a whistling motif of a famous Grieg melody. He’s a child murderer, claiming to be acting on impulse, but Lang takes his story in unexpected directions, as the criminal underworld seeks to put an end to his activities as keenly as the authorities, thanks to the increased police presence that his crimes have attracted. After a nerve-shredding manhunt, the last act is set in a kangaroo court already set on exacting their own version of justice, where Lorre’s pathetic pleas and staring, puppy-dog eyes go as close to generating sympathy for a child murderer as you’re ever likely to feel. It’s a shame that this film effectively typecast him in those kinds of roles for much of his career, but when he’s as good as he is here, it’s difficult to fault that logic.

Lang also cites the film as his favourite of his own works, with its very direct call to action to negligent mothers everywhere and his film is a powerful blend of social commentary and taut thriller that deserves every ounce of its reputation.

The Score: 10/10

Slums Of Berlin (Die Verrufenen)

Slums Of Berlin

The festival is also featuring a season around the works of Gerhard Lamprecht and his contemporaries this year, probably best known for his version of Emil And The Detectives (which also featured the writing talents of Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger). Slums Of Berlin, or as the festival called it In The Slums Of Berlin, was his third feature, made about six years before Emil and was inspired by the cartoons of Heinrich Zille, a German cartoonist fascinated with the more unfortunate side of life in post-war Berlin. Lamprecht uses a character from the more cosmopolitan upper classes to give his audience a route into this world, a man convicted of perjury to protect his girlfriend, before she and his family disown him and he ends up in the slums; his fate would be ever worse but for the intervention of a kindly prostitute.

Lamprecht succeeds in creating balance between his central narrative and the smaller moments focusing on the other residents of the slums, which are not entirely without humour. (At one point, a young boy is seen smoking, and the young girl he’s with then suggests he’d look good drinking too!) It’s a warts and all portrayal of the city with a strong dramatic core – at least I presume it to be, if there’s levels below childhood alcoholism and rampant prostitution then they probably didn’t need to be screened anyway. Karl Hasselmann’s cinematography creates wonderful moods and gives real character to the slum environments, as opposed to the clean austerity of the upper class houses. When you see the widening class gap in this country today, then Slums Of Berlin still feels relevant and Lamprecht’s plotting and direction keep it vital, and hopefully these restorations will find a new audience.

The Score: 8/10

I did have a slightly strange experience with the film, in that there are intertitles featuring the dialogue as is common with silent films. At first, these cards were in German without subtitles. As I was also reviewing the film for Take One I allowed others to alert the staff at the cinema to this fact, but in the twenty minutes of trying to use my GCSE German from twenty years ago to interpret the dialogue, I had it down as some form of cautionary tale about the dangers of giant man-lobsters wearing hats. Thankfully they came back just as the plot really kicked in, but possibly some German revision is needed. Either that, or a career in avant garde interpretations of German silent films awaits if I so desire.

20,000 Days On Earth

20000 Days On Earth

I’m not a great lover of birthdays, as I’ve said before many times in this blog. It’s not the creeping slow hand of death on my shoulder, more the tedious monotony of waiting a whole year before simply adding one to your total. I took great pleasure in celebrating my 20,000,000th birth minute a couple of years ago and I’m looking forward to next March when my 15,000th day on Earth rolls around. By my mathematics, that makes Nick Cave about a third older than me, but his documentary is less concerned with the mathematics advancement of time and more of a simple day-in-the-life of one of Australia’s more esoteric musical talents.

Except there’s nothing that simple about Cave, or his documentary. Documentary makers Iain Forsyth and Jayne Pollard mix in a Freudian psychoanalytical review, reminiscences with his Bad Seed band colleague Warren Ellis, a delve through the weather diaries he kept over a decade ago and random people he’s collaborated with appearing and disappearing in his car, including Kylie Minogue (who sang on a record of his) and Ray Winstone (Cave wrote the screenplay for the excellent Australian “Western” The Proposition which starred Winstone).

The combination of the cod psychoanalysis, Cave’s less profound tendencies and the seemingly pointless way that his collaborators appear and disappear as if figments of his own imagination give the whole documentary an air of pretentiousness. But I guess that’s the point; we also see Cave’s production process at work, as he works through songs for his 2013 album Push The Sky Away both in the studio and on stage, and that’s when the documentary truly comes alive. You know what? It is pretentious, but I think that’s the point, and you’re left with an image of Cave as a true artist and visionary. 20,000 Days On Earth hasn’t won me over to be a listener of their music, but it has given me huge respect for Cave as both musician and person and ultimately as a bona fide rock star, and if the producers have any rushes of offcuts available, I’d love to watch them – I could have happily watched this process for hours.

The Score: 9/10

Nekromantik

Nekromantik

Little tip for you:  if you’re going to watch a film depicting necrophilia with a heavily decaying corpse, don’t buy a rather textural chocolate brownie to take in with you before the screening. I’ve always thought I had a strong stomach and could sit through anything but Nekromantik did its best to push even my boundaries. It was preceded by a video intro from director Jorg Buttgereit who sounded almost apologetic for his film in hindsight – he can’t have been that apologetic, as he made a sequel four years later. There’s not a lot to Nekromantik, other than a slim plot and hefty amounts of fondling organs and some of the grossest imagery ever committed to film, but the last fifteen minutes or so are so gleefully over the top I was eventually won over to thinking this isn’t terrible. It’s no better than average, but it’s not terrible. And thanks to the BBFC now giving it an 18 classification, you too might be able to upchuck your chococate brownie at the sight of a woman going to town on the corpse her husband’s brought home to spice up their love life.

(Note: While I always try to find a suitably interesting image to accompany each of these reviews, the only image I could find on Google that might allow you to retain your lunch was the title card. Just Google the title to see what I mean. And don’t blame me if you and your last meal rapidly part company. At least I hung onto my brownie in the end.)

The Score: 5/10

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 5: Frozen Singalong, How I Came To Hate Maths, The Japanese Dog, The Canal

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I mentioned yesterday one of the key reasons for me watching so many films in cinemas, being forced to watch films in one sitting as an antidote to my short attention span. I also collect audience reactions, from massive gasps in thrillers to stunned silence at dramatic twists (see here for more examples of my favourites). Monday threw up a host of opportunities to add to my collection.

Frozen Sing Along

Frozen sing along

While I saw Frozen twice in cinemas last year, once for Bums On Seats and once with Mrs Evangelist, I wanted to get to something at the Family Film Festival and not having any children of my own, this seemed the best option to get Mrs Evangelist back to. Also, being a singer it’s a great way to combine two of my favourite passions. As a film, I’m still as much of a fan as I was when I saw it last year – it comfortably made my top 40 last year – although the problems become more pronounced, including the odd structural deficiency and the fact that all the central female characters have the bodily characteristics of aggressively sexual Barbie dolls. Despite that, I stand by it being my favourite Disney animation (excluding Pixar) since the heyday of the Nineties. (The Score: still 9/10.)

Audience reaction: was a joy to behold, mainly because the number of unaccompanied adults in the screening was in single figures. I was a little concerned that the kids weren’t into it, as they didn’t start singing – but then how many kids are going to wander round the house singing Frozen Heart (The Ice Workers’ Song)? As soon as we got to Do You Want To Build A Snowman? the choir of 200 young voices kicked in, and not only did they sing the songs, they said the words in the songs and they even made the sounds effects in the songs. What became apparent was that Mrs Evangelist and I didn’t know the songs anywhere near well enough – she gave it her all in Let It Go (which I also sang in my best falsetto so as to blend in; apologies to anyone in the rows in front who thought they were being haunted by a Bee Gee) and I also managed Olaf’s song In Summer, but a full purchase of the soundtrack is clearly required before we attempt to make it to one of the grown-up sing alongs at somewhere like the Prince Charles in London. And yes, we will clearly be doing that, judge me all you like.

How I Came To Hate Maths (Comment j’ai détesté les maths)

How I Came To Hate Maths

Or, how I came to not really like How I Came To Hate Maths. It’s nominally a French documentary, although given that around 49.4% of the mathematicians featured are English, there’s certainly an international flavour. I’m a mathematician by training, having done it at GCSE, A Level and degree level, so I approach any scientific documentary with a keen interest. In theory this documentary should have been a no-brainer; mathematics is divided into those people like me who are good at it and enjoy it, and normal people who hate it. However, there were two major flaws: firstly, in setting out to prove any mathematical theorem you should clearly show your workings, and there was no consistent flow of ideas.

This is almost an anthology documentary, which covers chapters on problems with the curriculum being taught in French schools, issues with the subprime mortgage market, the fields of advanced mathematical research and so on, and the underlying purpose is muddied at best. More critically, the documentary never manages to come close to helping those in the “normal person, hate maths” understand why maths is so cool to those of us in the other camp. A few interesting insights in the individual sections, but a missed opportunity.

The Score: 5/10

Audience reaction: this one was a sell-out, but the general shuffling and coughing throughout gave clear indication that I wasn’t the only one truly gripped. As soon as the credits began to roll, so did the stampede for the exit.

The Japanese Dog (Câniele Japonez)

Japanese Dog

I’ll be honest, my thoughts on picking this out of the programme were that the single frame looked more cheerful than anything from any Romanian film I’d previously seen. I would say that’s not an entirely bad reflection on Romanian cinema, as the films I have seen, especially those from Christian Mungiu, have been of the highest quality, but mostly they’re about as cheerful as a wet weekend at the end of the pier eating congealed fish and chips, and that’s the upbeat moments. All this, though, does a disservice to The Japanese Dog, which while slight, peaceful and about as eventful as a trip to the shops to buy a stamp, still wove a certain spell over me on a Monday night.

Costache (Victor Rebengiuc) is a man who’s lost almost everything in a flood in his village, including his wife. He mopes around and begrudgingly accepts offers of help, but dawdles over selling his now worthless plot of land. A visit by his estranged son and his family gently thaws his demeanour, as he bonds with the grandson he’s never met. At an hour and a quarter and barely two acts in terms of narrative structure, The Japanese Dog is unlikely to offend but it’s also equally likely to not linger terribly long in your memory. It is beautifully acted, the camera work is minimal with a richness to the cinematography and the script suggests beats and moments rather than bogging itself down in exposition. It’s a lovely character study that purrs rather than barks, as long as that’s your thing.

Audience reaction: one of those great moments when not a single member of the audience moved for the exit before the end credits were up, possibly induced into a trance-like state.

The Canal

The Canal

The last film of the day was one of two horror films screening at the festival that I’d managed to miss at the earlier FrightFest. David (Rupert Evans) is a film archivist living with his wife and son – and if you can tell me what his son’s accent is supposed to be, I’d be most grateful – but he’s got two problems. Firstly, his wife (Hannah Hoekstra) is almost certainly having an affair with a dashing looking client, and secondly one of his latest pieces of archive film shows his house being the setting for a brutal murder in 1902. When his wife is found dead in the local canal, the detective on the case (Steve Oram) wades in with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer smashing airhorns and accuses him of the murder, while David is obsessed with both the house and the canal and what haunted secrets they might be keeping.

I really didn’t get on with The Canal; the script recycles a few horror ideas done better elsewhere and it relies heavily on jump scares from overcranked sound. The acting is also dreadful in places, with Rupert Evans reduced to little more than a damsel in distress in trousers and the likes of Antonia Campbell-Hughes (pictured) and Steve Oram misjudging either the tone or their performances – or both – rather horribly. Oram in particular feels like he’s wandered in from a bad parody of The Sweeney, and as a consequence The Canal never resonates and becomes dull long before the final stretch.

The Score: 4/10

Audience reaction: am impressive amount of jumping from a few very nervous rows sat behind me. I will confess to having jumped a couple of times myself, but both were early on before the tedium set in. I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny rumours that festival director Tony Jones was creeping around the back rows in a William Castle-esque attempt to add greater scares, but based on the quality of the film it would only have helped if he had been.