Cambridge Film Festival

Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 2: Night Moves, The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq, A Most Wanted Man, House Of Wax 3D

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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.

Night Moves

Night Moves

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)

The Kidnapping of 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

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

House Of Wax


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.


Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 1: Supernova, The Woman Who Dares, Magic In The Moonlight

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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

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

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.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 6: Local Hero, Wayland’s Song, Big Bad Wolves

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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.

Local HeroLocal Hero

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.

Wayland's SongWayland’s Song

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.

Big Bad WolvesBig Bad Wolves (Mi mefahed mezeev hara)

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

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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.

Roland KlickRoland Klick: The Heart Is A Hungry Hunter

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.

Machete KillsMachete Kills

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 Strange Little CatThe Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen)

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.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 4: Fireworks Wednesday, All The Light In The Sky, Blackbird, The Great Hip-Hop Hoax

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With my other commitments of the first weekend out of the way, I was now free to tackle films to my heart’s content. The difficulty of the programme’s breadth and depth is partly knowing what to tackle and partly having time to tackle it. So for the first time I went into a day at the festival without a fixed plan for the day, rather attempting to use on the ground knowledge to guide me to my most valuable watching choices.

Fireworks WednesdayFireworks Wednesday

My first choice of the day very much made itself, as having seen both About Elly (as the very first film I saw at last year’s festival) and A Separation, I was keen to explore the earlier work of Asghar Farhadi. The only real mystery is why it took him a decade to come to international prominence, as all of the hallmarks of quality of his later works are present and correct here.

Sure, it’s another domestic drama, but Farhadi has a gift for shading in his characters rather than casting them in black and white, and for intricate plotting which makes use of happenstance rather than feeling like it’s built on contrivance. His films manage to reflect both the realities and the uniqueness of life in contemporary Iran but also the universal nature of human relationships and frailties. Fireworks Wednesday is neither as deeply fraught as About Elly or as tense and probing as A Separation, but it’s still well worth checking out if you’re a fan of either of his more recent works.

I also wrote a longer review of Fireworks Wednesday for Take One, which you can read here.

All The Light In The SkyAll The Light In The Sky

Having had around five hours sleep the previous night before getting up to write another Take One review, the thought of a 140 minute German costume drama (in the form of Ludwig II) was a little too much for me, so instead I took the option of prolific American director Joe Swanberg’s latest. At the age of just 32 Swanberg has clocked up an impressive seventeen films as a director, although he came to my prominence recently as an actor in the throwback horror You’re Next.

All The Light In The Sky might come across as unusual material for a 32 year old director, dealing as it does with a woman in her mid-forties (Jane Adams, best remembered to me as Niles’ second wife Mel in TV’s Frasier) dealing with the direction of her life and her attempts at relationships, both of friendship and of something deeper. Despite everything in her life wearing away or feeling worn out, Adams’ Marie and her friend Faye embrace everything life has to throw at them, and Swanberg and Adams’ script – which feels heavily improvised – is warmly naturalistic and refreshingly honest, as are the performances. There’s no point being prolific if you can’t maintain quality, but if everything Swanberg puts his hand to is of this quality, it suggests he should have no concern about his current workrate.

The film was preceded by short film Me, The Terrible, a charming confection featuring a young girl’s adventures with some crude animation mixed with live action. It was due to be followed by a Skype Q & A with Swanberg and Josephine Decker, the director of the short, but regrettably some confusion meant that only Decker joined the portion I attended. Despite that, it gave some useful insights into her working practices.


I followed this up with a debut from Scottish director Jamie Chambers. Blackbird is the story of a rural Scottish community. Ruadhan is a young drifter who is inspired by the local elders and their folk singing, but who sees their way of life gradually slipping away. Ruadhan lives in a boat on the land of town bard Alec and generally scavenges off the lives of others, but as the town’s traditions appear under threat, his own way of life is the one most under threat.

Woven through Blackbird are the Scottish folk stylings of luminaries such as Norman Maclean and Sheila Stewart, who both lend their voices to the film. Despite no prior acting experience, Maclean helps to ground the film and give it a sense of realism as well as adding his distinctive sound to the music, which is the highlight of Blackbird. The film’s primary let-down is in its narrative, which never manages to convince in either Ruadhan’s plight or his eventual fate. Some decent performances and Chambers’ skill as director, which seems to be better than his writing, keep Blackbird watchable but leave it falling short of anything more.

The Great Hip Hop HoaxThe Great Hip Hop Hoax

I finished the day with Jeanie Finlay’s latest music documentary. Finlay was in attendance, glammed up and introducing the film with a simple “I think you should watch the film and decide if you like it, and then we’ll talk afterwards.” That pragmatism and directness is well reflected in Finlay’s doc, which tells the story of two more Scottish singers, this time rappers who couldn’t get into the hip hop industry as themselves, so reinvented themselves with American accents and fake backstories and who suddenly found themselves welcomed by managers and agents alike, with a route into the big time seemingly guaranteed for as long as they could keep up the pretence.

Finlay’s latest effort isn’t quite as effective as her previous visit to the festival with Sound It Out, which was the intriguing story of a northern record shop. Here my main obstacle was with the animation which is used to flesh out the parts of the story documented by the fake Americans; it’s so stylised that it never quite gelled with the rest of the material. However, Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd – otherwise known as Silibil n’ Brains – were generally charming and likeable, even if you could never quite tell if the unreliable narrators were truly becoming reliable in their old age. The Great Hip Hop Hoax’s strength lies in the uncertaintly of the outcome, and Finlay structures her story well in that sense.

However, the Q & A afterwards threw up even more intriguing details which suggest a director’s cut in a few years may have an even more fascinating story to tell, as they are now both recording again after having been reunited by filming for the documentary. Silibil n’ Brains might be a thing of the past, but Bain and Boyd may yet find fame, or at least some form of infamy, and Finlay has another solid film to add to her CV.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013: An Interview With Project Trident

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TRIDENTFEST_LOGOCambridge film making collective Project Trident have held TRIDENTFEST, a showcase of independent film, at the Cambridge Film Festival for several years. Ahead of this year’s event, I spoke to Carl Peck about the work of Project Trident and their plans for this year’s festival.

Movie Evangelist: So how long has Project Trident been running now?

Carl Peck: I think it’s six, maybe seven years. I don’t think anyone’s really sure! It came about from watching and making films here in the [Arts Picturehouse] cinema after work, often for birthdays or Halloween, and we’d make secret films to screen to people. We didn’t want anyone to know about it, so we just came up with a dumb code name and borrowed Project Trident from the nuclear weapons programme! We had enough films to make a screening, so we did a screening for our friends and called it Tridentfest. Then someone from the [Cambridge Film] Festival was at the screening and suggested screening it at the festival, and it escalated from there.

ME: As it’s evolved over the course of time, has it been difficult to fill a programme each year, or has it spurred  you creatively?

CP: Bit of both I guess. We’d be making films and screening them anyway, but it does give you a bit of a kick  to get things done. We used to have to ask to show films here, and now  they ask us. We’re not an official selection of the film festival, but as we’re late night we have a fair amount of free rein to do whatever we want and they don’t vet the films, usually because they’re not finished in time!

ME: So, within a realm of quality you can effectively do whatever you want?

CP: We have our own internal censorship; someone will suggest something and we’re like “dude, do you really want to do that?”

ME: Is that on grounds of taste, comedy, budget or a mix of the three?

CP: It’s kind of a double edged sword, but on the other hand we’re a collective and nobody’s boss, so sometimes someone will have something  weird and you just have to roll with it. But we’re pretty much all on the same wavelength.

ME: Working back from the festival each year, are you then just working on ideas to see what coalesces?

CP: Quite often it starts with a bit of messing about, for example Andrzej  [Sosnowski] and Simon [Panrucker]’s films, and that will then become a  story; often throwaway ideas you’d not think about, but that they make into a film. Some of my ideas come from dreams, and I have a lot of ideas in the shower, which is why I spend ages in the shower coming up  with stuff. Christian’s films are usually tributes to old, trashy movies and Ryd’s into more realistic stories, which always gives us a varied mix when it comes to the finished product, and this year will be no exception.

ME: So, four days before the festival screening, how ready is it?

CP: Pretty good. I’d say it’s around 70% there, which is better than normal. It used to be a real mission as to how we’d screen films, as  they’d be on DVDs and they’d always break, but now the projection is digital so we can convert the films in advance and we’re pretty sure they’re going to work. It also gives us an incentive to get them done. The rest are just finishing touches, or films like Rydian [Cook]’s. He was in New York yesterday with the world premiere of his film, and now he’s coming back to show the UK premiere with us.

ME: Has it been good for your own film making profiles?

CP: We’ve got quite a following from it over the years, but often only from people who will turn up at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. But it’s definitely been worth doing.

ME: Is there anything you’re most proud of from your years with Trident?

CP: THE PURPLE FIEND [a thirty minute short film made by the collective and shown at Tridentfest in 2011] is a highlight, but it took about two years to make. I’m really proud of the 48 hour film we made this year, for the Sci-Fi London Film Festival competition. There’s also a “making of” which Ryd’s made. [Both will be shown at this year’s TRIDENTFEST.] It was different factions coming together, and we did all the post-production in one house. We used to make films originally together, but more recently it’s been smaller groups and crossing over into each other’s teams. This was also a road test for our ability to work together and for our planning, as we’re talking about making a feature film in the future.

ME: How close were you cutting things in a two day window?

CP: We were two minutes late for the hand-in, but luckily they were quite lenient! The visual film had gone off the night before the deadline to our guy in London who does colour grading, he graded the film during the night while Simon finished off the mix of the audio. We then met up in  London the next morning to put together the sound and the audio, but something in the edit had changed and so we had to get that fixed. We had something like half an hour left, and we were still in Shoreditch, frantically calling a taxi and we were running down the bridge to the BFI with this USB stick in our hands! We had a massive burrito afterwards to celebrate and then passed out.

ME: What drove you to enter the competition? Was it a chance to hone those skills?

CP: We did it a couple of years ago, and it all came together last minute, but once we’d done it you can see what’s involved in achieving that. We had a real structured plan this time of how to operate. You can’t prepare as such but you’re allowed to source locations, costumes and things like that. We’d managed to get a cool location in an airfield, and took a bag of clothes, military stuff that would look good in a sci-fi film. We were there while the brief was being picked up in London. We then gave ourselves around two hours to script, shot it all, then got back to Cambridge at ten o’clock that night and gave the footage to Alex who edited it overnight, then got up in the morning and worked on the post – sound, music, visual effects, and then shot some pick-ups on the roof of the house we were in. Some shots we didn’t have so we just animated them, I don’t think you’d ever notice.

Each room was a different studio. Simon’s bedroom was a sound studio, he had his bed turned upside down, in one room we had our edit and in the kitchen was visual effects and Rydian was making the Making Of [documentary] while it was happening – hence it’s not finished! It looks great on the big screen. We showed it last week to West Suffolk College as they’re also entering their own 48 hour competition.

ME: And has that also become part of the work of Trident, of inspiring and helping other film makers?

CP: Yes, that’s always been our thing, to try to spread the message that there’s no reason you can’t make films if you want to. If you’ve got an  iPhone, you can make a film.

ME: We now live in the  YouTube generation. How much difference is there between picking up an  iPhone and the process you’ve gone through for the competition?

CP: We didn’t start doing that, you don’t need all that to start with but we’ve progressed since we started and are now getting people involved  and the team’s grown so we can do that sort of stuff. There’s always someone out there who’s in a band and you can ask if you can use his music. You’d think you couldn’t make a film, but the more people you ask the more it escalates.

ME: Music videos have also been a feature in previous years, is that something that’s happening this year as well?

CP: I think I said last year that I wasn’t going to do any more for free, and the one film I have this year is a music video! The one I’m doing is with a rapper from Peterborough who’s a really nice guy who was featured on Radio 1 Xtra recently.

ME: What are the highlights of this year’s programme?

CP: We have fourteen films on the list this year. We have some of Simon’s crazy films he’s been making in Bristol, the return of Simon and Andrzej’s Poo Brothers films, three new ones from them, a really trippy one called Brian. There’s also one file in projection that no-one’s heard of – who knows what that’s going to be? It usually comes together on the night, you never know if anything isn’t going to be ready or broken, so even if we haven’t collectively seen them we know what  they’re about and we can loosely gauge the vibe. We’ll also have some news about our future plans, which hopefully include a feature film.

ME: Carl Peck, thank you very much.

Tridentfest 2013 screens Friday 27th September at 23:00 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and tickets are available via the usual box office routes.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 3: Hannah Arendt, Muscle Shoals

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Day 3 arrived, and as usual in the film festival it’s the one day each year when commitments of my other hobby leave me unavailable. But for a humble church chorister as myself, the chance to sing in King’s College Chapel each year is too good to turn down.

The difficulty of this is that it means almost a whole day when I can’t see films. With an impeccable lack of timing, the film that won the audience award screened in this slot in 2012. Last year, because I’m clearly insane, I went to Bums On Seats for the first time, then to a film, then to sing at King’s, then back to the cinema for more films, and still managed to miss the festival’s best. I was Bumming again this year, venting my Hawking frustrations again (which you can hear here) but sadly there was no suitable gap before the evening to get a film in.

Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt

So after singing until I was hoarse, my first film of the day was Hannah Arendt. I have a passing interest in philosophy, so Hannah Arendt’s name is one of those I’ve heard of but couldn’t necessarily place. Arendt was a chain-smoking free thinker who saw her theories taking precedence over the feelings of friends and colleagues. This might not have been so provocative had Arendt’s theories not centred around the motivations of the Nazi. Arendt was herself a Jew who’d escaped a French detention camp, but she’d also had an affair before her marriage with a Nazi-sympathising professor and some couldn’t see past that when reviewing her work.

There’s a disconnect at play, in that emotions and passions are suggested to be running high by Hannah’s actions, but that’s barely alluded to on screen. The footage from Adolf Eichmann’s trial shows  great anger, but that level of emotion never translates into any of the film’s contemporary characters. Hannah Arendt builds to a simultaneously thoughtful and stirring climax, but it’s a shame about some of what precedes it.

I also reviewed the film for Take One in more detail here.

Muscle Shoals

There’s been some superb music documentaries in the past few years, but the best understand the balance between the music and the story behind it. Muscle Shoals has a phenomenal musical heritage to call on, and the talking heads make a line-up that would make Glastonbury blush, from Alicia Keys to The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin. The music is unquestionably the highlight, and what Muscle Shoals does well is to not only give insight into the characters behind the music, such as Rick Hall, but into the process and composition of the sound. It tells the story of how both Rick Hall’s Fame Studios and its rival Muscle Shoals Sounds came into being, and in  the process left its distinctive sound written through decades of music like letters in a musical stick of rock.

The only area where Muscle Shoals falls down slightly is in an attempt to be a comprehensive and exhaustive history of the musical period, following a fairly strict chronology. By the time we’re into Lynnyrd Skynnyrd the fascination may be waning somewhat, and trimming 10-15 minutes may have helped. It’s a documentary that looks almost good as it sounds, the digital cinematography showing off both the countryside and the crags in Keith Richards’ face to equal effect, but it’s at it’s best when it’s exploring the characters behind the music.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 2: Mushrooming, Particle Fever, The Crash Reel

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As I mentioned in my coverage of Day 1, after three years of being solely a paying punter taking in the festival has escalated somewhat and I am now involved in a whole range of media coverage. Day 2 saw me take the first steps on two particular journeys as part of that coverage.

The other thing that Day 1 had brought was some unexpected recognition of my behind the scenes support, as part of a cast of dozens that help to make the festival what it is. While my contribution was fairly minimal compared to some of those that work full time for much of the year to bring these eleven days of cinematic heaven to the public each year, everyone is equally rewarded when it comes to thanking those involved, and a giant caption displayed before each film lists the names of those involved. The past year of my involvement in film activity in and around Cambridge means that a significant proportion of these names are now people I know and talk to regularly, and it’s had the effect of making the festival that much more interactive, and even more enjoyable for a fledgling film geek like myself.

In fact, I was so thrilled to see my name in lights that I hadn’t noticed something about it:


That’s my name, at the top of the third column. It took me two films to notice that my name was spelled wrong. But hey, there’s no wrong letters, just a slight absence of all of the rights ones, and I’m a firm believer in that it’s the thought that counts.


So my first involvement of the day was to introduce the film Mushrooming, then to host the Q & A afterwards. Actor Raivo E. Tamm had been brought over by the Estonian embassy especially for the film’s two screenings, and I headed down to introduce him and the film, having seen a screener of it already. Arriving at the microphone, I got right into the line of the projector and promptly blinded myself, causing me to give a rather panicked introduction. Raivo stayed in for the duration of the film, allowing me to pop out and continue to prep for my questions later. Q & A sessions can sometimes be difficult to judge, as you never know quite how many questions are going to come up. In the end I asked two or three lead in questions, and then left the rest to an audience seemingly keen to know more about the actual practice of Mushrooming.

The film itself played after a whole Estonian season last year (including Raivo as Disgruntled Tennis Player in The Temptation Of St. Tony) and Raivo backed up the fact that Estonian cinema appears to be attempting to be a little less deep and ponderous. Mushrooming starts out quite dry, but gradually blends its genres until a simple trip into the woods for a politician and his wife escalates into a stand-off in a cabin with a redneck and a rock star. It’s played generally very straight, and consequently it might not be for everyone, but you must be doing something right if you can be simultaneously over the top and understated. (And Raivo’s the best thing in it, even if I had to concentrate extraordinarily hard at all times not to call him Ravio.)

Particle FeverParticle Fever

It feels odd watching a physics documentary in Cambridge. Twenty years ago I was turned down here for a place reading mathematics after I had two interviews. The physics one went so badly I couldn’t remember Newton’s three laws, so I felt slightly uncomfortable sitting in an audience potentially filled with some fine academic minds. I needn’t have worried; Particle Fever gets the balance just right between the human stories of the CERN project at the Large Hadron Collider and giving a sense of the magnitude of the potential consequences of the discoveries being made for the very future of science itself. The editing by science buff and not-bad-editor-either Walter Murch helps to condense the four year story into a digestible narrative with clear direction, but it’s the graphics from design firm D12 (also responsible for Quantum Of Solace’s opening credits, fact fans) that help to make the science digestible. Mark Levinson’s project is clearly one of passion and is far more likely to inspire people to an interest in physics than day 1’s Hawking documentary.

This was also my first review for Take One, Cambridge’s independent film magazine which runs along side the festival. The full review can be found here.

The Crash ReelThe Crash Reel

We have become so inured to the sight of extreme sportsmen at events such as the X-Games pulling off their tricks that the element of spectacle can be somewhat diminished, driving the sportsmen themselves to attempt even greater stunts for our gratification. We’re also so accustomed to seeing the stunts not quite come off that when champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce comes a cropper at the start of this documentary, just six weeks before the Olympics, we’d naturally expect him to dust himself off and for this to be a story of triumph over adversity. But The Crash Reel is something very different, and so much more powerful for it.

Kevin suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and Lucy Walker’s documentary charts his path to attempted recovery, alongside the strain it’s put on his close-knit family and especially two of his brothers, one of whom suffers from Down’s Syndrome. The Crash Reel is both a gripping human drama and a damning indictment of the nature of extreme sports. Walker has struck documentary gold with her subjects and makes the most of what she’s been given, and has assembled a documentary that will traumatise and appal you in the best ways possible, but if there’s any justice in the world should be a catalyst for change in these fledgling sports. Just occasionally the onscreen graphics feel a little overdone as Walker attempts to keep on top of her characters, but other than that it’s hard to find a flaw, and hopefully this will find a wider market than just snowboarding geeks; I for one felt physically affected by it.

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 1: Just Before Losing Everything, Life Distorted shorts, Hawking, Prince Avalanche

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This is my fourth Cambridge Film Festival, which I first encouraged myself to explore after starting this blog in 2010, and this year by the morning of the first day I had a palpable sense of excitement for what was coming up. Partly that’s my involvement, which this year is reaching new levels: as well as a daily diary here, I’m also contributing a number of interviews to Take One, the Cambridge publication that runs alongside the festival, and hosting two Q & A sessions. For me it’s a thrill to be involved, but also serves to further the reason for setting up this blog originally, to attempt to get word out about the finest films showing anywhere and to encourage people to see them, and my evangelising will reach new heights over the next eleven days.

The first day is always a slightly strange experience as it’s really a half day, with films typically starting late afternoon before the gala opening. I’ve had good experiences with the opening films, as in 2010 (Winter’s Bone) and 2011 (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), the first film I saw each year was also my favourite come the end of the festival. (Last year was the opposite experience, with my favourite two films being the last I saw.)

But this year also marked a personal milestone, in that on day one I finally managed to get to a short film programme. I’ve taken in Tridentfest for the last two years, but for externally submitted films I’ve had tickets and then had to return them for various reasons. So it was a joy to finally be able to take in a selection of shorts, and I’m hoping I’ll get more chances throughout the festival.

Here’s my breakdown of the good, the strange and the desperately unfortunate that made up day 1.

Just Before Losing EverythingJust Before Losing Everything

This French short, running to around 25 minutes, is showing in conjunction with a number of other shorts programmes over the course of the festival. It’s difficult to get too much into plot without giving the game away, but there’s a number of sharp and sudden escalations in the plot and the viewer is left to piece together what’s happened from pieces of conversation and visual clues. By effectively stripping out any exposition and allowing the plot to drive the narrative, Just Before Losing Everything builds and maintains tension almost out of nowhere, while running parallel social commentary, and it perfectly fit the running time. It comes highly recommended if you get another chance during the course of the festival.

Life Distorted

What followed was the first of the festival’s half a dozen or so short film programmes that will run during the course of the festival, in this case seven films which each had a somewhat skewed outlook on life. Personal highlights included Our Name Is Michael Morgan, a tale of competition between two eerily similar salesmen, and Emmeline, the tale of a girl who has to overcome an unusual affliction to find happiness. Director Tim Hewitt was also in attendance for his adaptation of a Graham Greene short story A Little Place Off The Edgeware Road, and the thread also included the voiceover difficulties of A Big Deal, the a satnav with jealousy issues in Bird In A Box, the short and slightly macabre animation Menu and the tale of extreme recluse author Izzy Blue in Hermit. Overall there wasn’t a significantly weak link, and with two or three charming and provoking shorts this was a well composed programme. A slight sound issue on the first film thankfully didn’t cause too many problems.


The main event of day 1 was the gala screening of the documentary Hawking with Q & A, which had not only taken over all three screens at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse but was also being beamed live to cinemas around the country. Demand was certainly high, and five minutes before the scheduled start time I was in a queue that stretched virtually throughout the entire length of the cinema, from the screens doors through the bars and almost to the street.

The documentary they were all served up is a curious beast. Although directed by Stephen Finnegan and Ben Bowie, it’s been co-written by them and Hawking himself. Hawking takes his opportunity to summarise his career achievements, from theories on the Big Bang to his partunification of various fields, but that’s all it is: a fairly thin biography that serves to eulogise its subject without ever getting below the surface. In that sense it achieves its initial aim, as Hawking wrote The Brief History Of Time not only to bring science to the masses, but to encourage the wider questioning of the fundamental aspects of the universe. Consequently, a documentary that doesn’t question anything feels violenty at odds with its subject and his philosophy, and for a pseudo-scientist such as myself it comes over as an exeperiment based on a fundamentally flawed terms of reference.

This was then followed by a question and answer session that can charitably be best described as excruciating. A set of unfortunate circumstances, including Professor Hawking’s seeming movement to the wrong part of the cinema leaving him stuck when it came to his time to answer pre-recorded questions, a failure of his pre-recorded questions to answer, a set of odd questions from a bemused audience who seemingly hadn’t been briefed that they couldn’t answer Hawking any direct questions and Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s insistence on (probably unintentionally) doing his best to draw the audience’s attention to the flaws at any given point, the whole experience was the equivalent of a slow-motion car crash, enlivened only by video messages from Sheldon and Amy from The Big Bang Theory (geekgasm), Richard Branson (space advert) and Morgan Freeman (bizarre non-sequitur). To cap it off, when fellow scientist Kip Thorne was asked where Hawking sits in the scientific pantheon, he gave a very honest answer that still felt somewhat uncomplimentary in an evening desgined to celebrate the world’s most famous scientist. I don’t believe anyone at the cinema or the festival itself to have been too responsible for what happened, and it would be unfortunate if it reflected badly on them.

Prince AvalanchePrince Avalanche

David Gordon Green’s directorial career has followed a somewhat unusual trajectory, from the inide credibility of George Washington and All The Real Girls to the mainstream excess of Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Pineapple Express represents a meeting of minds of the two David Gordon Greens: Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are two highway workers wandering through a wilderness painting lines on the road and putting up posts, while they gently bicker and attempt to resolve the issues with their respective love lives (not least the fact that Rudd is dating Hirsch’s sister and has only taken him on this journey out of a feeling of loyalty). Their relationship is fractious, slightly daft and often laugh-out-loud funny, and if that was all there was to Prince Avalanche it might not be enough. But the wilderness they’re tracking through is one devastated by wildfire and their encounters with some of the other residents of the wilderness add a resonance and a sweetly melancholic tone. It’s also lovely to see a great performance from Lance LeGault, remembered by anyone my age and sensibility as Colonel Decker from The A-Team in what turned out to be one of his last roles; the film is dedicated to his memory. It’s a fine achievement by Green, bittersweet and roughly honest with itself and beautifully shot in the washed out residue of the American wild.

Coming soon: day 2, with my reviews of Mushrooming, Particle Fever and The Crash Reel.

Cambridge Film Festival Diary: Days 7 and 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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