Cambridge Film Festival
Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Review: The Distance (La distancia) & Ancho es Castilla / N’importe quoi
I’m currently writing reviews for Take One at the Cambridge Film Festival as well as blogging. This review will eventually be hosted on the Take One website, by which time it will have had a proper edit and be all shiny, but technical issues are currently preventing that, so until that time I’m hosting the unedited review here, as the film is showing this evening (Thursday) at 20:30. It will eventually be replaced here by my daily blog of the festival.
Don’t forget to check out Take One for all of your Cambridge Film Festival coverage.
Surrealism can be a tricky thing to get right. When you start to see objects as characters and when your defining purpose is to find what’s illogical rather than logical, if you’ve failed to ground your world in something substantial then it’s all just a collection of images, no matter how interesting those images might be. Sergio Caballero’s second feature employs both a very physical grounding, in the environs of a derelict power station, and also uses the distinct structure of a heist movie to give shape and form to his imagination.
While the sense of the form is conventional, almost a staple of the language of film, the details layered over it most certainly are not. Taking an inspiration from David Lynch, Caballero has cast not one but three dwarves as his central characters, a trio with various psychic powers that they use to be able to conduct their business. Additionally, they (and all of the other characters, whether animate or inanimate) are telepathic, speaking in a variety of languages but able to clearly communicate. Their services are required by a performance artist who was bought and installed in a Siberian power plant by a now deceased Russian oligarch; the artist seeks an object held at the same facility called The Distance and the dwarves concoct an elaborate plan to acquire it for him.
Caballero has stated in interviews that he no longer watches anything but children’s television, believing other culture will contaminate his own creative process. Maybe because of that he’s chosen as his leaping off point elements from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film STALKER, but instead of The Zone, The Room, The Writer and The Professor as in STALKER, Caballero has The Bucket and The Chimney in addition to The Distance. Other elements, from the telekinesis to the oppressive Russian landscape, also have their roots in Tarkovsky’s work, although the sexually-obsessed dwarf whose powers are activated by scratching his crotch and then sniffing his fingers appears to be entirely of Caballero’s invention.
What keeps THE DISTANCE watchable throughout is the relationship between the three central characters. Caballero’s process involves taking ideas recorded on his iPhone, then expanding them on set and only finally forming the narrative in the editing suite, so it comes as a pleasant surprise that the narrative underpinning the film is as coherent as it is. Within that the dwarves’ relationships, a three way odd couple that provides both occasional flashes of emotion and humour which give the bedrock that allows the more eccentric elements to flourish. There are other character successes within the film, most notably a haiku-spouting Japanese bucket, but THE DISTANCE is primarily a visual film and on that level is impressive, Caballero’s imagery perfectly complemented by Marc Gómez de Moria’s cinematography which finds beauty in the harsh Spanish landscapes doubling for Siberia.
... there’s lightness and hope among the depression and despair in the world that he’s created.
Given his aversion to modern culture and his inspiration from Tarkovsky, THE DISTANCE would seem to be Caballero’s attempt to puncture the pomposity of some of the darker recesses of cinema. There’s lightness and hope among the depression and despair in the world that he’s created, but it’s the darkness that’s the dominant force. Rather than the approach of early classics of surrealist cinema, which sought to find disturbing images or horror among the mundane, Caballero instead finds glimmers of human truth and dark comedy among the freakish, but if his primary goal was to entertain, it’s one he’s achieved admirably. While The Distance itself feels very much a MacGuffin, the final reveal still makes for a memorable climax to an arresting film.
THE DISTANCE is screening at the Cambridge Film Festival alongside the short, ANCHA ES QUESTILLA / N’IMPORTE QUOI, which while equally surreal is anarchic, boisterous and deliberately messy, in sharp contrast to almost every element of THE DISTANCE. Mixing puppets made of food with actors occasionally playing the same characters, it’s a story of exorcism that draws inspiration from other surrealists and for anyone that might find THE DISTANCE too remote or abstract, the daft liveliness of ANCHA ES QUESTILLA should provide a thorough antidote.
One of the commonest questions I’m asked by people who know I’m coming to the festival – mainly by my mother, every year – is how I manage to keep all the films straight in my head. To me, that’s never seemed much of an issue. Consider my previous day at the festival: an American independent film with a stop-motion cuddly unicorn; a three hour, highly rigorous German film on domestic abuse; a dreamlike documentary about a half-finished African encyclopaedia; a German comedy about alcoholism; a documentary on the fight to legalise gay marriage in California; and a noir set in the American desert filmed in 3D over sixty years ago. Even half a week later, I have no trouble keeping them straight in my head.
But one of the many reasons I favour the cinema experience over watching films at home is the requirement to take in the whole film in one sitting, so even if a film struggles to engage me initially, quite often I’ll be won over at some point in the running time; that’s not always the case at home when I can get up and wander. Despite repeated attempts in the past, I’ve never managed to watch a Stanley Kubrick film in one sitting at home and large chunks of 2001 remain completely unwatched, yet sit me in a cinema with The Shining and I’ll be totally sucked in, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. What the festival represents for me now is an occasional test of that attention span, thanks to the need to occasionally watch screeners.
I’d agreed to host the Q & A for Ningen that afternoon, but had only done so the previous evening, so had a short window in which to catch up with the film before heading into Cambridge that day. By the time I had to get in the car, I’d seen two thirds of the film on my laptop, which was convenient as the film is neatly structured into three sections. My attempts to watch the remaining third in my spare hour at the cinema were met with constant internet issues, and repeated attempts to find the sweet spot of the office wi-fi met with failure and constant buffering. I finally managed to find a space in the bar, but by them time was against me and I ended up retreating into the cinema for the last 45 minutes of the film once it played, having first introduced myself to the directors.
My initial home watching attempt consequently came in one hour and ten minute stretch and about forty one minute chunks, testing not only my patience but also ruining the flow of the last act, which is the one most critical within that film to be taken in a single sitting. To cap it all off, when relating my struggles to the directors they mentioned they had a DVD of the film with them. Gah! Still, it’s worth making some small sacrifices to help with the overall festival experience.
In terms of keeping those films straight in my own mind, I do sometimes find myself having to recalibrate when watching a marathon. A couple of times on that extended Saturday I took my seat for a film, only to find my brain still trying to digest the previous couple of hours. At such points I do tend to close my eyes, count to ten, take a deep breath and allow myself to focus on the film at hand. However, I realised beforehand that even my brain couldn’t cope with going from hosting a Q & A with two such delightful and talkative directors to absorbing a four hour black and white German film when I’d not eaten and had little sleep the night before, so I had to reject Home From Home (a film prequel to the acclaimed Heimat series) in favour of something more easily digestible. I’m not 100% sure Four Corners was that film, but we’ll get to that.
Here’s the films I caught on day 4 of the Cambridge Film Festival this year.
Cherry Tobacco (Kirsitubacas)
I’ve had some great experiences with Estonian film at the festival, including hosting a Q & A for Estonian film Mushrooming and also discovering the brilliant The Temptation Of St. Tony on a cold, wet Monday morning. Cherry Tobacco continued that strong run with its tale of Laura (Maris Nõlvak), a girl approaching her eighteenth birthday struggling to find anything to interest her. Her mother still tries to control her, including setting her up on a date with a rather wet teenager whose interests include making hi-fi systems and designing T-shirts. Seeing an offer of a hiking trip with a friend as a chance to escape, if only for a short time, Laura finds herself unprepared for both the soggy realities of hiking in peat bog and for the eccentricities of the hiking group’s leader Joosep (Gert Raudsep).
I’d go as far as to say that Cherry Tobacco became my favourite film of the festival up to that point. The combination of awkward humour and acutely observed teenage frustrations is a real winner; there’s a lot of laughs here, but also poignancy and while the relationships that form are simple, they are also keenly felt and directors Katrin and Anders Maimik have a sharp sense of human failings and how to exploit them for comedic purposes without ever actually exploiting their characters. It’s well constructed (the initial date, with its clumsy attempt at seduction and bizarre T-shirts – and if you can tell me where I can get an Egg Mountain T-shirt, I’ll love you for ever- and that date is reflected in more than one way later in the film. I can’t say I’ve ever been a teenage girl, but there’s an honesty about young love and infatuation that should win over members of both sexes and of all ages, and it certainly got a great reaction with the Sunday afternoon audience.
The Score: 9/10
Normally I have to spend hours during the festival sat meticulously researching these description paragraphs, but the joy of a Q & A is the chance for an intense revision period over a film. And there’s a lot to take in about Ningen that’s not on screen – the cast aren’t actually actors, but real people that film makers Guillaume Giovanetti and Çagla Zencirci have incorporated into their loose version of a Japanese fable (with a little more Western myth thrown in for good measure). Although based in Turkey, a love of Japanese culture of the two drew them to Japan, where the offer of a crew and equipment seemed too good an opportunity to pass up and they embarked on their second feature.
The story is based on the Japanese folk characters of the raccoon and the fox, who one day make a bet over who can get a human’s treasure (the title literally translates as human). However, they eventually forget their old lives and become trapped in their human bodies. The film is broken into three chapters, each focused around one of the three characters, and each section has its own style and pacing. Masahiro Yoshino gives a great performance for a novice – even cutting off his own hair (now that’s commitment) – as the CEO of a struggling company who sees himself sectioned when unable to cope, and where the line between fact and fable gradually begins to blur. While the characters are all played by humans, weaving small details from their own lives into their characters and performances, the directors succeed in capturing the essence of fable and the disparate story elements work well together. A bittersweet piece of film making with some great location shooting that exists somewhere in a netherworld between reality and fanasty, it’s curious and affecting and I was glad I caught the last act on the big screen (where it was much more effective).
The Score: 7/10
The Q & A afterwards was one of the easiest I’ve ever had the pleasure of chairing. As well as a few starter questions on the background to the film I also asked them about their collaborative process. They take turns working with the actors and the technical side (on this occasion it was Guillaume who worked more closely with the actors, where with their previous film Noor Çagla took on that role), but they seem to have an easy chemistry from years of working together and we had to be dragged off from the Q & A after half an hour had flown my. Guillaume and Çagla continued to take questions on the mezzanine below the cinema before kindly posing for a quick selfie (sadly my screening wasn’t covered by the official photographers, but I already know what the back of my head looks like – that’s all you get to be in Q & A photos if you’re on the Q side – so I was happy to get one of the front myself).
Finally for the first Sunday of the festival, I swapped out my four hour German film for a film I had planned to see later in the week, but that had a special preview added. It’s one of those films touted as “Country X’s entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award”, and while I have a tolerate / hate / still slightly obsessed with relationship with the Oscars (and the Foreign Language award especially), this feels less like an awards candidate film than any I can remember. That’s not to say it’s not got things going for it, as it’s packed with characters, incident and plot lines – almost overstuffed in places – but it felt like an event TV movie at times, rather than something truly cinematic.
It’s also got a concept that might be slightly hard to swallow cold, as it’s the story of a young chess prodigy Ricardo (Jezriel Skei) who gets into trouble with one of two tribes of gangs. Affiliation is indicated by a number, 26 or 28, that the members of the various gangs on each side of the divide have tattooed to indicate their allegiance. On the other side, but attempting to put aside his gang allegiance and live a peaceful life, is Richardo’s father Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), who doesn’t yet know his son. Throw into the mix an old flame of Farakhan’s back from London for her father’s funeral and a cop Tito (Abduragman Adams) on the trail of a child killer who may or may not be related to the gang activity, and you can’t accuse Four Corners of skimping on plot. It’s kept moving at the pace of a thriller by director Ian Gabriel, but nothing’s ever really given room to breathe, some of the characters feel stock and you will need to pay attention in the first half before the plot lines converge on one another. It’s competently acted rather than any stand out performances, and while it’s entertaining and dramatic until the predictable ending, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to remember it in a week.
The Score: 6/10
Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 3: I Believe In Unicorns, The Police Officer’s Wife, N: The Madness Of Reason, Love Steaks, The Case Against 8, Inferno
People seem to think that I see a lot of films. My view is that you only get one life, so you might as well make the most of it, and I do try to do that wherever possible. I would have hoped, over the years, that my actual job as a planning manager and my repeated gift for taking on too much would have improved my ability to filter this down to a manageable level – even if manageable for me is extreme for most people. For the first time, the change in festival dates meant that I had an uninterrupted run on the first Saturday, so as usual I piled content into my schedule with gleeful abandon. I’ll leave you to be the judge as to how well I’ve got the balance.
Here’s a breakdown of my Saturday, an episode of 24 if Jack Bauer were a tall, cuddly film blogger rather than an international menace.
08:00 Drag myself out of bed. Hoping to get day 2 blogged and two screeners watched before the day starts.
08:30 Still in the bathroom. Review early morning plans down somewhat.
08:55 Breakfast. Shredded Wheat Orchard Fruits, semi-skimmed milk, two rounds of low fat bacon sandwich. Well, I am on a diet.
09:20 Realise I have an hour and twenty minute film to watch, and that I have an hour and twenty-five minutes until I go out. Decide to watch it on the iPhone so I can see some while in the bath.
09:25: I Believe In Unicorns
I Believe In Unicorns is the début feature from writer / director Leah Meyerhoff, a sexual coming of age story that embellishes its story with stop-motion animation and other dreamlike images. Davina (Natalia Dyer) is a teenage girl caring for her disabled mother (played by Meyerhoff’s own mother). In an attempt to distract herself from her family labours, she embarks on a relationship with Sterling (Peter Vack), an older boy who seems engrossed in her one minute and distant the next. Her relationship with Sterling grows more complex and as she finds herself drawn to him more closely, his true nature becomes apparent to her.
Thinking back, I seem to remember having a fairly vivid imagination as a child, but I couldn’t honestly put my finger on the point when that stopped intruding on my waking thoughts. For Davina, the transition is more obvious, and her initial fantasies – the occasional scene interspersed with the stop motion unicorn – take on different forms as her relationship becomes more tempestuous, reflecting visually the changes in her own mind and mood. Dyer and Mack are both very strong in their respective roles and their awkward chemistry extremely believable, and Meyerhoff’s cast also includes more famous names including Julia Garner (currently in Sin City 2) and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Colour) in small roles. There’s a risk that mixing the animated elements with the drama could become twee or overly sugary, but Meyerhoff strikes a good balance between the two sides. There are shades of Badlands in the young lovers’ relationship, and while no classic Unicorns can at least be mentioned favourably in the same sentence; I only wish that Terrence Malick had thought to include a cuddly animated unicorn or two in some of his later films.
The Score: 7/10
10:50 Get in car late, drive nervously to Cambridge as the car is now making a rattling sound and the first appointment I can get for the work garage is 9th September.
11:20 Arrive at industrial estate where I normally park the car on a Saturday if walking into Cambridge to discover it’s packed to the rafters, nary a space in sight. Have already paid for car parking in town for two days, can’t afford to add a third.
11:30 Finally find a space of sorts at the far end of the estate. Prepare to spend the rest of the day worrying that the car is going to be broken into / crashed into / clamped / all of the above because I’m too tight to pay for a car park. Have brisk walk past train station to Cambridge 105 studios.
11:45 Arrive at Bums On Seats later than hoped. Everyone else seems to be in a relaxed mood, which helps greatly. Try to hide the two enormous sweat patches that for some reason have developed around my waist thanks to my brisk walk. Wonder if, when I come to write this up, that might be too much detail. Decide to worry about that later.
12:00 Take part in lively and forthright Bums On Seats festival special with host Toby Miller and fellow reviewers Edd Elliott and Sarah Dillon. We cover Night Moves (two thumbs up), I Believe In Unicorns (I’m keener than Toby and Edd, neither of whom seem that taken) and Magic In The Moonlight (where the general debate is how bad it is on a relative scale; I try to stick up for Colin Firth and Eileen Atkins a bit, in the face of general contempt from everyone else who’s seen it).
12:45 Abandon Bums before they get to Atilla Marcel in order to have another sweat patch-inducing charge across Cambridge, this time walking to the Arts Picturehouse to see my first film to review for Take One, safe in the knowledge that it’s a film that lasts nearly three hours and I should hopefully have dried before I come out. Remind myself to head to http://www.cambridge105.fm or iTunes to catch the podcast of the show later in the week for the bits I’ve missed.
12:48 Tweet from the graveyard behind Cambridge 105 studios that I’m walking to the cinema, because clearly I have no concept of time.
12:57 Arrive at the Arts Picturehouse in time to grab a cup of tea and my press ticket. Kick myself that I have left three unproductive minutes in the day.
13:00 The Police Officer’s Wife (Die Frau des Polizisten)
The Police Officer’s Wife is an exercise in form and construction, and archly designed in the sense of a greater purpose. Over the course of fifty-eight chapters, each one with a slowly revealed title card fore and aft indicating the chapter number, a number of initially unconnected threads are glimpsed. We see an old man alone in the snow or in his apartment; a variety of wildlife, both in forest and urban settings; and three members of a young family, the father (David Zimmerschied) a police officer about his business, and a mother (Alexandra Finder) and daughter bonding over a small patio garden. We also catch sight of the occasional bruise on the mother’s body, before the father’s increasingly erratic behaviour becomes more apparent – if never comprehensible – and the mother is left to wonder what lengths her husband might be prepared to go to.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the structure, the repetitious nature attempting to reinforce the monotony of the mother’s insular life and the chapters not directly related to the family adding ambiguity – and, in the case of the chapters where one or more family members sing slightly creepy children’s songs directly to camera, increasing the overall sense of unease – but the film never has a sense of flow and the fact that it takes the best part of an hour for the patterns to become apparent may have seen half the audience fatally alienated by that point anyway. Those that have stuck with it will find that the increasingly troubled cycle of violence is actually a compelling interpretation of a desperate family struggle, and by last hour the tension whenever we realise the chapter has started in the family home and the mother Claudia may once again be subjected to a beating horribly reminiscent of what domestic abuse sufferers must feel in their own homes. The ending is both ambiguous and deeply troubling, depending on your interpretation, but this is a film stymied from greatness by its own insistence on rigidly adhering to a template. Still made me feel I’d been beaten round the head myself.
The Score: 7/10
15:55 Generally brutalised, head to the bar. Run into Becky Innes with her daughter (Becky heads up the Family Film Festival which is already in full swing). They allow me to hug a cuddly Gruffalo as therapy. Helps enormously.
16:05 Catch up with the Arts Film Club members Mike O’Brien, Hugh Taylor and Hilary Goldsmith as they prepare to screen their first Shortreel Award winner ahead of the evening showing of Ida. Decide this is the best time to have some food, so order the soup of the day (carrot, parsnip and apple) and a bow of the Picturehouse’s finest herby chips.
16:10 See Jack Toye, marketing manager of the Picturehouse, attempting to Face Time Natalia Dyer ahead of a Skype Q & A after the screening of I Believe In Unicorns currently taking place. About to try to wave down the phone but then remember film is not a two way medium and she has no idea who I am. Also realise that, given I watched her film on the same device Jack is now talking to her on, that my day has pretty much eaten its own tail at this point and it’s still not even half over.
16:15 Soup and chips arrive. Chips wolfed down in a few minutes, soup still far too hot to eat.
16:25 Soup still not cooling down. Go to bar and ask them to put cold water in it.
16:27 Eat soup.
16:29 Take my seat in next film, while feeling a slight blistering in the roof of my mouth that tells me my soup was probably still just a shade too hot. Ow.
16:30 N: The Madness Of Reason
N takes its launching off point from the life of Frenchman Raymond Borremans, who left Europe for Africa in the mid-20th century. He spent forty years working in the Cote D’Ivoire and began compiling an encyclopaedia of the area, which despite being published after his death was only complete up to the first thirteen letters. His spirit seems unable to rest, so he appears to both figures from his own past and others, including a female who talks to spirits, and tries to understand both how to find peace and how to come to terms with the reality of a world that has moved on since his passing, not always in the most desirable of directions; the land is riven with civil war and Borremans’s attempts to finish his work from beyond the grave will also need to take this new world into account.
The Madness Of Reason is a deeply unusual take on what could have been a very static subject. Writer / director Peter Krüger’s film succeeds in being ethereal and graceful, yet still creates a compelling and surprisingly structured picture of a country with a rich heritage but some deep modern problems. If you can buy into the conceit that Krüger’s working with, then The Madness Of Reason with individual moments that can be both profound and beautiful as well as an overall narrative that echoes some of the other ghosts of a nation’s past and present. Calmly narrated by Michael Lonsdale, The Madness Of Reason is a study in compulsion, obsession, memory and reason that elevates itself above standard documentary and creates a distinctive portrayal of both man and country.
The Score: 8/10
18:12 Film finishes. My next film starts in three minutes in a different building. Have had DM from Sarah McIntosh asking if I’ve seen Ningen. Suspect a Q & A hosting is somewhere in my future.
18:13 Have stopped to talk to Toby and Sarah D again. Toby confirms Sarah M looking for Q & A support. Sarah D has now seen I Believe In Unicorns and thought it was great. I feel instantly validated.
18:14 Realise stopping to talk was casual in the extreme. Run headlong through traffic with scant regard for my own safety across the road to Emmanuel College. Dash through the first courtyard, take a left, get lost in the second courtyard, see helpful intern, dash through two more passageways, up the stairs, barrel into the screen and thankfully it’s only just starting.
18:15 Love Steaks
Love Steaks appears at first to be a common or garden love story, it’s the pairing of Clemens (Franz Rogowski), a young trainee masseuse at a health resort who finds himself gradually caught up with kitchen apprentice Lara (Lana Cooper) in a tentative romance. The obstacles to anything more than casual feeling developing would appear to be Clemens’ crushing shyness – coupled with an unfortunate clumsiness – and Lara’s dependence on alcohol. As they conduct their relationship in any dark corners of the resort they can find, barely away from the prying eyes of the rest of the staff, they strike a deal: Clemens will be more assertive if Lara cuts out here drinking, but it’s not clear if either party will be able to keep to their side of the bargain.
Where Love Steaks is most successful is with its attempts at comedy, with a lightness of tone and Clemems’ enjoyable pratfalls keeping the first hour moving briskly. Cooper and Rogowski make a believable odd coupling, but it’s when the comedy turns to drama that Love Steaks isn’t quite as successful. The decision to make Cooper the alcoholic feels on the surface a brave one but the drama never rises above shouting and general angst and the attempt to drive to a resolution diminishes the credibility somewhat. Taken as a light romantic comedy then it’s successful on those limited terms, but without being able to mesh the more serious notes successfully with the laughs it feels slim and inconsequential; a film where actually another ten minutes or so on the compact 90 minute run time might have actually worked in its favour.
19:45 See Sarah M after the Love Steaks screening, agree to pick up the Q & A tomorrow, although as they’ve already done two not yet confirmed they’ll want to do a third. Head to Sainsbury’s across the road from the cinema. Lose half an hour in no time catching up on social media and starting to research Ningen. Give up any hope of further blogging, and realise I’m now about to fall criminally behind, for the third year in a row.
20:29 Is it that time already? Maybe I’ll get some work done after the next film, I’ve got half an hour.
20:30 The Case Against 8
The Case Against 8 is an HBO produced documentary which charts the four year struggle to overturn California’s Proposition 8. Despite gay marriage being legalised in the state in 2008, Prop 8 defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and received a surprising “Yes” vote at the same time Barack Obama was voted president. The vote had the consequence of invalidating thousands of gay marriages that had already taken place. Campaigners took the step of pursuing a federal lawsuit to challenge the legality of the ban, with two couples seeking to regain their right to an equal marriage with mixed couples the standard bearers for the case as it weaves its way through a succession of both the state and the land’s highest courts.
Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary has a huge asset in the two highly charismatic lawyers employed to argue the lawsuit. David Boies and Ted Olsen were on opposite sides of the Bush / Gore Florida case in 2000 that decided the fate of the presidency, but became friends during the case and it’s their collaboration – proving that the issue of gay marriage is not one split simply across political lines but a more challenging civil rights issue that should be unifying in its morality – that is one of many damning insights into the nature of politics and how issues of person and civil rights can get caught up unfairly. The one loss is that cameras were banned from the courtroom, but Cotner and White still manage to stage their case effectively, using interviews and the participants reading back from court transcripts to strike deep at the heart of the issues. In good documentary, you naturally feel that both sides should receive an equal airing but all parties are at pains to make clear what sadly still isn’t self-evident to many; that this shouldn’t be an issue and that discrimination in this sense, when progress has been made against discrimination from race to gender but much less in understanding of sexuality, and it would take a hard heart not to feel deeply for the two couples as they edge closer to realising their dream.
The Score: 8/10
22:21 Discover that the film is much longer than I thought. Give up any hope of getting anything even vaguely productive done today. Any sensible person would at this point stop watching films and start writing something.
The final film of day 3 was another in the Retro 3D season, this time Roy Ward Baker’s contribution to the 3D fad of the Fifties. He could teach most of his contemporaries a thing or ten about how to construct images and frame shots for the third dimension; while most of the “chuck stuff in your face” comes in the last ten minutes, the use of 3D to create depth of field and to emphasise Robert Ryan’s desolation and loneliness in his desert struggle is remarkable. Despite the desert setting, it’s more of a noir than a Western, as Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan leave Fleming’s husband Ryan to rot in the desert in the hopes of claiming his fortune, but without counting on Ryan’s reserves of unexpected resourcefulness. Ryan’s grimly humorous voiceover keeps us interested in his plight, and the dramatic showdown is both a great use of the third dimension and a fittingly fiery climax. Inferno is worth about a thousand lazy post-conversions of the latest action epic, and given that you can could the great live action 3D films of the modern era on the fingers of one hand, it’s a shame that Inferno isn’t more widely known or regarded; hopefully this great looking restoration will go some way to changing that.
The Score: 8/10
00:05 Begin the long walk back to the car, having seen so much but written so little. Maybe tomorrow. Car turns out to be fine, maybe because I spend all day worrying about it, and I arrive home around one in the morning for a few precious hours’ sleep before returning to do it all again the next day, and loving every minute of it.
Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 2: Night Moves, The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq, A Most Wanted Man, House Of Wax 3D
Writing around my experience for the Cambridge Film Festival, given how involved I’ve now become with the festival, seems to be taking on different levels this year. I have always tried to be objective in my writing and to review honestly and dispassionately, but I have noticed this becomes more difficult at times of heightened emotion, i.e. whenever my inner fanboy is being let loose. From movie conventions to film festivals, the more prominent the guests or the higher the anticipation, the higher my initial perception is likely to be of the finished product. (If Marion Cotillard is ever in Doctor Who, just slap a five star rating on it and have done with, I’ll never in a million years rate it anything lower. If Marion Cotillard is the Doctor, you’ve somehow become trapped in my dream world, which is unfortunate as last week James Earl Jones had Andy Murray’s arm off in there. It’s a dangerous place.)
But a conversation within the bar on the Thursday night prompted a reminder of my first ever experience of writing film reviews, before this blog was even a glint in the milkman’s web browser. When I was at university, I ended up writing reviews for a film society at a friend’s university; while my first drafts were well received, said friend did point out that I’d been rather honest in some of my opinions, and while that was fine for Reservoir Dogs, they were a film society that relied on punters and I might still need to find the positives in Species. I find myself in the position of wanting to be honest about the films, but also in a position where I want to encourage people to visit the festival. I am just one person, though, and if anyone is truly making their decision about whether or not to see films based purely on my opinions, I suggest a quick re-evaluation of your life choices. Other reviewers are available.
With that in mind, here’s my thoughts on the films of this year’s second day.
I’ve rarely, if ever, seen Westerns at the cinema, but one of the first I did was Meek’s Cutoff, an excellent drama set in the Wild West (rather than a Western) that frustrated some audiences with the ambiguity of the ending; and when I say frustrated, at the end some people were still in their seats, asking “is that it”? Night Moves also seems to have caused audiences some consternation if other online reviews are anything to go by, but Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Meek’s is actually an engrossing thriller set in the world of environmentalism. Three concerned environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) hatch a plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam that’s had a detrimental environmental impact. Setting about their task methodically, their efforts are undercut by Sarsgaard’s Harmon. Harmon has a laissez-faire attitude which adds moments of unnecessary jeopardy to their expedition; they are nothing to the unexpected consequences of their actions, which have dramatic ramifications.
Reichardt has cast her central trio perfectly, all three playing roles which while not stereotypical of their careers are not a huge stretch based on their previous work. Reichardt’s script with Jonathan Raymond is also a master class in construction, with barely a wasted word or shot and with the themes often woven into the background rather than needing to be stated explicitly. Night Moves isn’t interested in taking sides with the environmental debate, more to use it as a backdrop for her protagonists. Their relationships are complex and uneasy and the tension is gradually wound tighter, leavened with the odd flash of dark humour and surrealism. The grey and brown, blanched cinematography and Reichardt’s own editing also make significant contributions to keeping Night Moves lean and effective. The only slight downside comes towards the climax as the restrained tone finally gives way, albeit briefly, to something more dramatic and obvious, when subtlety has been much of the film’s power to that point. That said, this is a sleek and lean thriller that generates its energy from small movements and is another fine work from Reichardt. (Though am I the only one who’d love to see an Eighties set prequel tracking the adventures of the boat Night Moves, possibly with its sister boat Jamaican Me Crazy?)
The Score: 8/10
The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq (L’enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq)
Michel Houellebecq may not be a hugely well-known name in this country, but he’s become infamous in France for his writing, particularly his 2001 novel Platform which saw him on trial for – and eventually acquitted of – inciting racial hatred. He’s also got some particular words for his critics:
“First of all, they hate me more than I hate them. What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they’ve already got their idea about me. To some degree of course, that’s true for everyone. After two or three novels, a writer can’t expect to be read. The critics have made up their minds.”
Possibly as a riposte to those critics who’ve made their minds up about him, never mind his books, Hoellebecq has taken the experience and, in working with writer / director Guillaume Nicloux, conjured up a documentary-style telling of the period of his real life disappearance during a book tour in 2011. Entirely a work of fiction (or is it?), Houellebecq plays himself and winds up in the company of three brothers and their extended family. Learning body-building and having lengthy debates over dinner, Houellebecq’s excursion plays as a whimsical fantasy that just might be the nicest kidnapping in recorded history. It might not quite resonate as much with those in this country not familiar with the man – think the Agatha Christie episode of Doctor who, but without the aliens and with Salman Rushdie, and if that sounds daft then don’t worry, that’s the exact tone they’ve gone for – but it’s a pleasant enough diversion for ninety minutes.
The Score: 7/10
A Most Wanted Man
I have a significant advantage with A Most Wanted Man in that any concerns I might have had about my review damaging the audience in that the second festival screening has now passed, with me having taken so long to write up my review. But the film will be on general release in a few weeks, and has so far gathered significant critical acclaim, with the reviews including Alan Scherstuhl in Village Voice saying “A Most Wanted Man is simply a complex tale superbly told, with time for nuance and to soak in its mysteries” and Richard Roeper in the Chigaco Sun-Times saying that the film “… works as a crowd pleaser and a believable reflection of how these fictional events might play out in the real world.” On the other hand, Time Out New York described it as a “disappointing plod of an espionage thriller”, the San Francisco Chronicle suggests what we should take is that “it’s really boring – practically sleep inducing – to be an international spy” and Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News went further, saying it was “so slow I can feel my hair growing”.
You may have guessed that I’m in the latter category. There’s some interesting themes here, certainly the idea of a spy organisation with a conscience but one that’s also looking at the bigger picture is intriguing. Philip Seymour Hoffman is as magnetic as ever, even if he rarely has to engage his acting muscles, and stronger than usual female roles for Nina Hoss and Rachel McAdams (even if neither gets anything much to do either). There are also massive wastes of talent going on, from Willem Dafoe to a spectacularly unused Daniel Brühl, but the fundamental flaw (and almost the polar opposite to Night Moves) is that this is a thriller without any thrills. It’s barely got a pulse and by the time it gets into second gear it’s almost at the final scene. Thankfully there are much better films which will pay testament to the true abilities of Hoffman.
The Score: 5/10
House Of Wax 3D
The day finished off with the first in the Retro 3D season, a loving restoration of the classic Vincent Price movie from 1953. The film opened with an introduction from Ramon Lamarca, who also curates the Catalan season at the festival, and helped to put into context the film’s position in the history of this particular subset of the medium. House Of Wax was the first colour 3D film from a major American studio, and was distributed and projected using the polarisation method we currently use to watch 3D films in cinemas (as opposed to the multi-coloured glasses of more recent decades).
It made Vincent Price into a big name once again, the story of a man whose waxwork museum is burned to the ground in an insurance fire with him in it, and how he then exacts a heavy toll on those who have wronged him. Having not seen the film before, what most surprised me was the structure; after an intermission card (which caused some people to start to leave their seats in an almost Pavlovian fashion), the new House Of Wax is introduced by a showman, and some of the most obvious “throw things at your face 3D” – all of which is entirely coincidental to the film’s plot – take place over the next ten minutes. It’s all thoroughly enjoyable, the 3D just adding to the fun, and it’s not hard to see why this had such a restorative effect on Price’s career. There’s generally a lower presence of horror at this year’s festival, but House Of Wax was a delightful Friday night treat.
It hardly feels a day since my last film festival – oh, wait, it’s been three days since my last film festival, which makes me sound like some sort of recovering filmaholic. Recovery may be too strong a word as my film addiction is as strong as ever, and so just a few days after I spent the weekend commuting to London for Film4 Frightfest, watching 16 films over five days, I’m now straight into this year’s 34th – and my fifth – Cambridge Film Festival. I was thoroughly excited by the prospect before it all started, but having only just finished blogging about FrightFest yesterday morning and then gotten in the car a few hours later to start all over again, I’m now feeling like Doc Brown at the end of Back To The Future 2, having just sent Marty back to the future, only to turn around and find him there again. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads, but I might need a stiff drink in about ten days time; I love doing it though, so feel no sympathy as it’s all self-inflicted.
I’m even more nervous this year, as over the course of the past two years I’ve failed miserably to get to the end of my own coverage. I abandoned at the end of Day 8 in 2012 and only got to Day 6 last year. In my defence, two years ago I went on holiday the day after the festival, and last year I also made my first set of contributions to Take One as well as continuing to cover stuff for Bums On Seats and hosting four Q & A sessions. This year is no different, so I’ll be aiming to get my write-ups done the next day, before I disappear down a black hole of other priorities.
So without further ado, here’s the films I saw on the first day of this year’s festival.
Supernova revolves around the life of a family stuck in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. The monotony of their existence is related to us by daughter Meis (Gaite Jansen), an existence she shares primarily with her father, mother (Tamar van den Dop, who also writes and directs) and her dementia-stricken grandmother, who has recently lost her husband after he committed suicide in the nearby river. Meis attempts to alleviate her boredom by subtly provoking her parents, by the vaguely sapphic relationship with her best friend Sue (Elise van ‘t Laar) and by staring at the succession of container ships that drift by the half-bridge near her home. All the while, the house’s location on a sharp bend suggests that another careless driver finding himself in their living room is almost an inevitability.
You wouldn’t think that a story of teenage ennui could be so compelling, but van den Dop generates a masterful undercurrent of tension in as much in what could happen as in what doesn’t. She’s helped by a magnetic performance from Jansen, whose narration shows her book smarts but that they, along with the rest of her existence, are festering in this dead-end location with her apathetic family. Meis is an anti-Lolita, as she reaches an age of sexual awakening where she flaunts herself in mild acts of defiance but has no subject to show her any affection. Her disabled father, frustrated mother and is-she-or-isn’t-she demented grandmother all add rounded characters, and Supernova is just the right side of eccentric, with a darkly comic streak running through its centre. Jansen is often exposed, but never feels exploitative, and with Gregor Meerman’s rich cinematography and a soundtrack that varies its mood with the characters between classical and rock, Supernova proved to be a wonderful way to get the festival going.
The Score: 8/10
Supernova is showing again tonight (Friday 31st August) at 20:30 at Emmanuel College.
The Woman Who Dares (Die frau, die sich traut)
The Woman Who Dares has the feeling of one of those stirring triumph over adversity films that the British have done so well over the past few decades, but in this case it’s a German production that tells the story of Beate (Steffi Kühnert), a German woman who abandoned her dreams of Olympic success at the age of 17 to focus on the imminent arrival of her family. Now approaching 50 with two children, one still living at home and about to welcome their first child and the other a single mother struggling to raise her own child, a sudden diagnosis of a cervical tumour causes her to re-evaluate her priorities and she determines to swim the English Channel before its too late. While her family struggle to understand what she’s going through – not least because she refuses to share, or even contemplate, her diagnosis – her rock of support and her conscience can be found in her best friend Katrin (Anna Blomeier).
Where the British have this kind of story honed to perfection and can now churn them out seemingly at will, there are a few flaws in the German version. Most prominently, these are the repeated needs to seemingly add false jeopardy when the story would be compelling enough without them, and the complete loss of focus on the various narrative sub-plots as the story steers toward its conclusion. What does work well is the central story between Beate and Katrin, with both Kühnert and Blohmeier giving deeply emotional performances; it’s just a shame that director Marc Rensing never quite knows how to integrate the stories of Beate’s family or her GDR backstory successfully into that story. There are moments of humour, and the story is heartfelt, but there are sometimes too many obstacles placed in Beate’s way for the story to truly convince. It’s competently lensed, with some nice overhead shots in the final stretch, and for those happy to take away the story of a middle aged woman chasing her dreams the core story might still be enough.
The Score: 6/10
The Woman Who Dares is showing again on Sunday 2nd September at 21:00 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.
I was then hoping to watch Sacre GRA in the evening, but sadly issues with the subtitles ultimately prevented the film being shown. Thanks to the staff at the Festival and the Arts Picturehouse for their efforts to try to overcome the issues (which thankfully are a rarity at the festival, despite the high volume of unique product that ends up being shown). There is another chance to watch Sacre GRA today (Friday) at 16:30.
Magic In The Moonlight
Magic In The Moonlight is, apparently, the 20th Woody Allen film to preview at the Cambridge Film Festival in its 34 year existence. This says much about both the festival’s draw and Allen’s productivity, although I would venture the quality of those 20 films may be somewhat mixed. Probably the best of the last few years, Midnight In Paris, popped up at the festival a couple of years ago and Allen has returned to a European setting, this time of the roaring Twenties, for a romantic comedy set in the worlds of mysticism and magic. Colin Firth is a stage magician called Stanley who operates under a Chinese pseudonym and disguise, but who’s made a nice sideline in debunking mediums and spiritualists. He’s called in by a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) to try to see through a new young mentalist (Emma Stone) who’s causing a stir in the French Riviera with her seemingly impossible qualities. Despite his insistence that all such performers are merely confidence tricksters and that the supernatural realm doesn’t exist, the quality of her insights soon has him doubting his beliefs to their very core.
The absolute star here is Firth, allowed to grumble around at his most irascible and able to turn on the charm even while managing to be obnoxious and stubborn. He’s slightly oddly matched with Stone, who convinces as the young mind reader with impossible gifts through her innocence and forthright manner, but the chemistry between the two barely simmers when it should sizzle. Allen has packed out his cast, as he usually does, with actors no doubt tripping over themselves to get into a Woody Allen film, but despite famous names from Marcia Gay Harden to Eileen Atkins, the biggest impression other than Firth is made by Eileen Atkins as Firth’s aunt. The problems lie in Allen’s script, which feels more of an idea than a fully formed story; I reckon I could have a reasonable go at summarising the plot on the back of a postage stamp. Additionally, if you apply Firth’s principles to the story there can only be one possible outcome, which the plot duly steers us to, and attempts to reference everything from Nietzsche to Shakespeare don’t do much to add profundity. If you’re a fan of Allen and are looking for something light, breezy and undemanding, then the Twenties soundtrack and French locations will give you a satisfying last taste of summer, but this is very much middle-tier Woody.
The Score: 6/10
Magic In The Moonlight is showing again tonight (Friday 31st August) at 23:00 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and is on general release from Friday 19th September.
Day 6, the halfway point of the eleven day festival, and the point at which I once again decide to put comfort before style in my appearance. I make that excuse a lot, as well as a lot of other excuses for my appearance, but this one’s genuine. My normal short sleeve shirt and jeans combo is normally supplemented by dark trainers, but my white running shoes are much more comfortable and also help when I’m bounding up the stairs to the screens two at a time. I also base it partly on the theory that The Shawshank Redemption first posited, that you never look at a man’s shoes, but this may fail on my account on at least two cases: generally, people would rather look anywhere than my face, and Andy Dufresne didn’t drag some white Nike knock-offs in a plastic bag through the sewage tunnels of a fictional prison. Still, I’m spending most of the day sat in a dark room with my feet under the seat, so for slogging up and down Cambridge’s streets, the running shoes come in extra handy.
And there was more walking, for day six saw me taking in three different venues.
As part of my attempt to determine the Forty Films To See Before I’m Forty, Jim Ross from Take One had suggested some typically Scottish offerings to supplement my viewing. He did this already in the knowledge that Local Hero was coming to this year’s festival, so I felt duly bound by honour to take in Bill Forsyth’s tale of corporate America taking on rural Scotland.
First, I had to contend with Emmanuel College, which is just opposite the Arts Picturehouse and acts as a venue for a number of screenings. There’s very little signage at the college to indicate they’re showing films, but on wandering in the first gate I saw a small sign. Following another half a dozen of these signs led me to a modern building at the far end of the college complex, at which point the signs ran out and I found myself ascending a spiral staircase more in hope than expectation. Turns out I was at the venue, which was a modern lecture theatre with curtains drawn as much as possible but the occasional shaft of light still creeping in. Although the base of the seats is padded, they are still benches and I struggled and fidgeted through the next hour and a half.
Local Hero is a product of its era, resolutely Eighties with a truly eccentric performance from Burt Lancaster. It did succeed in helping Dennis Lawson to make a more significant cultural contribution than Wedge to popular culture, but at the same time it’s now impossible to watch Peter Capaldi in anything without now imagining him doing it as The Doctor. (His edginess and inquisitiveness make him an excellent choice in my mind, but I digress.) Eccentric goes a long way to summing up Local Hero, and I’d also throw in whimsical, pleasant and humourous, and while it’s not a cast iron classic I’m glad to have ticked it off my list.
I then cut across the road, attempting (not entirely successfully) to undo my route, and arrived back at the Arts Picturehouse for my next film.
When navigating the festival programme each year, it’s difficult to make informed choices about everything. Sometimes you’re looking for a familiar face or name, something to give you a hook into a film, so when I saw the name of Richard Jobson, that seemed enough to hook me into his latest film, Wayland’s Song. My familiarity with Jobson stems from his presenting stint on the late night ITV programme Hollywood Report rather than his film career, but I’m always keen to give British film a chance. What I was left with was the only film of any nationality of the whole festival that I regretted seeing.
Wayland (Michael Nardone) is a veteran of the Afghanistan war who returns home to discover his daughter has gone missing, and sets out to find her and not to worry about who gets in his way. The simplest way to think of Wayland’s Song is as a companion piece to the distinctly similar Dead Man’s Shoes, except without any of the narrative, directorial or production skill that went into the former. The acting ranges from a dull monotone to screechingly bad, the Afghanistan flashbacks suffered by Wayland are laughably inept and there are a whole host of production issues, not least the sound mix which at certain points leaves the dialogue inaudible. There isn’t a shred of originality in Wayland’s Song and there’s not much more competence, although if you do see it yourself, please let me know if I’m right in thinking that at one point, Wayland puts his iPhone to his head the wrong way around (with the speaker and home button away from his face), I’d love to know.
Following this, it was another fifteen minute walk back down to the Cineworld in Cambridge for my last film of the day.
People often ask me why I watch horror movies, and I resist the temptation to ask them why they watch Coronation Street or The X-Factor. I suppose it’s a fair question, as horror movies aren’t for everyone, and it’s a genre that covers a lot of bases, so some horror movies still won’t be for all horror fans. I’m not a huge fan of torture porn, but certainly the forbidden thrill of gore has often appealed, but for someone who’s pleasant and welcoming on the outside I have a dark and twisted core, like one of those new tubs of Ben ‘N’ Jerry’s, and certain horror movies appeal to that darker side of my personality.
It’s the story of three men who gradually find themselves entangled in each other’s lives: Dror (Rotem Keinan) is suspected of some brutal child murders in which the heads of the children haven’t been found, thus denying them a full Jewish burial. Miki (Lior Ashenkazi) is the police officer who goes too far in attempting to extract information through official channels, so is forced to follow Dror on a more informal basis in the hope he slips up. Unbeknown to them both, they’re also being tracked by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the father of the most recent victim out for revenge and answers.
I found Big Bad Wolves very, very appealing, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. As with many horror movies, it manages to be blackly comic as well as bleak, but this is a film with more than two gears in its gearbox. It also succeeds in being more generally funny and occasionally a little surreal, but the true joy of Big Bad Wolves is how it manages to switch between gears, often in the same scene, effortlessly and never breaks the overall tone. It’s packed full of more twists than a bag of fun size Curly-Wurlys and writer / director team Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado excel on both fronts. I’d almost added a second day at this year’s FrightFest to catch this and a couple of other films, and was very thankful that this made it’s way to the FrightFest strand at this year’s festival.
Cambridge Film Festival Day 5: Roland Klick: The Heart Is A Hungry Hunter, Machete Kills, The Strange Little Cat
Day 5 is the Monday of the festival, and is the point in last year’s festival where I hit my peak, watching six films in the day. That was no longer possible at this year’s festival as there were no late screenings on the Monday, but I was attempting to have a slightly quieter year anyway. Last year, in the eleven days of the festival I saw 42 films and one programme of shorts during it, as well as two other films not in the festival, and in one of those (Killing Them Softly) I swear I began to hallucinate. Even my madness has its limits, it would seem.
So this year I used the morning to attempt to catch up on some of my press commitments for Take One and Bums On Seats, as well as my own blog. The film festival offered the use of a press room, which sounds grander than it really is; a meeting room next to the entrance to the screens which was a useful place to charge my laptop and to catch up with other fellow journalists and the occasional film-maker, but was quite often out of use due to being locked or for being used as a green room for the aforementioned film-makers, so much of my writing was done in the bar with the use of wi-fi anyway.
Consequently my Monday had a late start, and a late change when an appeal for attendees to a documentary with a Q & A saw me abandon plans to see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; probably for the best as Terrence Malick leaves me cold and almost every review I read drew that comparison.
My original plans for the festival hadn’t included any of Roland Klick’s films, much to my regret, as he was one of the big names of the festival and due to be making an appearance (more on that later). However, the documentary on his life by Sandra Prechtel gave me the first opportunity to understand more about the man as, I’ll be completely honest, I’d never heard of him before laying eyes on the Festival brochure. Despite his relative anonymity, he’s a twice winner of German Film Awards and has a legacy which includes Alejandro Jodorowsky citing him as an influence, so he’s clearly a subject worth examination.
Prechtel’s documentary does a great job of three things. Firstly, it manages to put into context Klick’s achievements and his position in German cinema and beyond. Secondly, through picking selected highlights from Roland Klick’s career it manages to demonstrate why he may have fallen from favour. Lastly, it manages to make both the man and his films seem completely compelling, highlighting Klick’s humour and honest appraisal of his own career, and encouraged me to seek out at least one other film later in the week. As biographies go, The Heart Is A Hungry Hunter does an efficient and thorough job at covering the career of one of cinema’s unfortunately forgotten greats.
Sandra Prechtel gave a Q & A session after the film, and in the process further convinced me to add more Klick to my schedule for the rest of the week. She also gave valuable advice to anyone looking to make such a documentary that you don’t need to be completely exhaustive to truly understand your subject.
Not for the first time, the Festival also extended its reach from the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse down the road to its neighbouring Cineworld. The cinema had two strands of the Festival, a Gothic season and the FrightFest strand, showcasing the best of the London horror festival’s recent weekend. Although I made it to London for a single day of this year’s FrightFest, there were still a veritable feast of delights available across the strand that I hadn’t seen.
So Machete Kills is the sequel nobody really demanded to the film based on a film based on a trailer for a film that didn’t really exist, except not only does it now exist but it has a sequel, and that sequel begins with a trailer for the sequel to the sequel. Confused? Wait until you see Charlie Sheen credited under his real name as the President of the United States, or Walt Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas and Lady Gaga, who are all playing the same character.
As the original pretty much did the Grindhouse inspiration to death, the sequel promptly kills off one of the original’s stars in the pre-titles sequence before spiralling off into a strange parody of the Bond series, casting Mel Gibson as a Hugo Drax-like bad guy with aspirations for a space station and a reboot of the human race. Grindhouse is never short of ideas, but it’s got an attention deficit disorder and never truly hangs together. Given that it also features Mel Gibson fighting at one point with a Klingon bat’leth, it’s never quite as much fun as it could be. Danny Trejo’s character of Machete is also now a one note joke running a little thin. Still, for those with aspirations it’s moderately enjoyable in an undemanding fashion.
The last film I saw at last year’s festival was Holy Motors, and it had a peculiar effect on me: while I was moderately taken with it on first watch, I couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. The Strange Little Cat couldn’t be more different in terms of content and approach, but it created a similar resonance in my brain which lasted a good proportion of the week.
Ramon Zurcher wrote and directed the film, inspired loosely by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and from an idea originally worked on at a workshop the director attended with Bela Tarr. It’s a remarkable day in the life of piece for a family spanning several generations, with small objects such as an empty ketchup bottle having a significant effect on the members of the household and each having their own independent stories that overlap and interweave. It’s visually compact, close static angles leaving as much to the imagination as is captured in the frame and sound is as important as vision with rhythms and the tempo becoming as important as any visual clues. It’s a perspective on family life shot at a child’s eye level, but showing a maturity and insight beyond many longer films and older film makers.
Zurcher was present for a Q & A after the film, where he gave further insight into his production process. This included the differences between handling his adult and child actors, Tarr’s involvement in the production of the film and the level of choreography that went into making scenes work. He was also annoyingly young, handsome and talented and it’s fair to say I was a tiny bit jealous. Maybe that was just the lack of sleep talking.