Cambridge Film Festival

Cambridge Film Festival Review: A Town Called Panic

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The Pitch: How The West Was… Moved To A Small Belgian Village And Then Invaded By Undersea Fish Monsters Called Gérard?

The Review: With the seeming descent of hand-drawn animation into obsolescence, and CGI animated movies all but taking over, it’s left to the occasional bastion of alternative traditional techniques to keep the old-fashioned animated flag flying, with the stop-motion animation of the likes of Nick Park and Henry Selick. Painstaking in their attention to detail, the most successful animated movies these days seem to be as rich in character and story as they are in their visuals, in order to compete with their shiny counterparts. So is there room in this world for a (very) crudely animated Belgian pair’s odyssey of a cowboy, an indian and a horse?

Hopefully so, not least because this is completely bonkers. The animation style should be instantly familiar to most people in the UK, having been used by the same production company for the Cravendale milk adverts, but the original Western-themed characters and their fellow villagers have a much longer history, stretching back ten years and even including an Aardman-produced English language version. For their step up to the big screen, though, they stay resolutely French (which works for me as an Englishman, as a heavily accented “Ah non!” is always more amusing to me than a similar “Oh no!”), but of course requires a longer narrative for the characters to inhabit.

I’m not sure any attempt by me to describe that narrative would give you any idea what the movie’s actually about anyway, or indeed highlight the true beauty of Aubier and Patar’s distinctive style. There’s huge amounts of wonderful background detail going on, but much of the joy comes from the foreground style as well – A Town Called Panic has its own internal sense of logic for the most part, but it’s a very loose framework on which to add lots of visual and narrative oddness. For example, as well as Cowboy, Indian and Horse, the other inhabitants of the village include a policeman with a sentry box that can instantaneously transform into a prison, and an incessantly shouting farmer who resuscitates a poorly tractor in an operating theatre and sends his animals to school, where piano lessons consist of several pianos in the same room and where the teacher is Horse’s fellow equine love interest. Still with me?

This is occasionally anarchic, but more often than not simply surrealist and absurdist, and the sheer amount of detail and invention here should keep you going easily for the 75 minute run time. What keeps this just short of true greatness is the absence of those strong character arcs that the likes of Pixar and even Nick Park are so good at – the ending feels like a non-sequitur to everything that’s gone before, but that’s no great shakes when everything else is just so enjoyable. If you like your animated movies completely unhinged, then pay a trip to the village.

Why see it at the cinema: The big screen allows you to truly appreciate how deformed the lead characters appear most of the time, but there is definitely a cinematic sensibility to many of the scenes and it will benefit from larger viewing.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: The Desert Of Forbidden Art

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The Pitch: If you think Karakalpakstan sounds like a made up place, you definitely won’t believe what you’ll find there…

The Review: Sometimes we in the West have a very narrow view of modern culture. Thanks to the advent of DVD and the Internet, it’s never been easier to pick up a copy of the latest Korean horror or Israeli documentary, but film is a media which generally travels well. But if you think about the history of art, most of the major artists who we know and would be familiar with have their roots firmly in Western culture. It might also be suggested that art can occasionally be a little elitist, and large art collections tend to be the preserve of major towns and cities.

So the story of a major art collection that now resides in an autonomous republic in the north-west of Uzbekistan (the aforementioned Karakalpakstan) is one worthy of bringing to a wider audience. Igor Savitsky was a man of many interests, including painting, but having been advised he’d never become a great artist, he set out to preserve the works of those who were. Stalin’s oppression of artistic freedom meant defying or deceiving authority, but working to his great advantage was the fact that he was almost literally in the middle of nowhere, away from prying eyes and able to put together an incredible collection and eventually house it in a museum.

Ben Kingsley narrates as the voice of Savitsky himself, using extracts from his own writings, and other voices including Ed Asner and Sally Field are used to bring the words of the artists themselves to life. Interspersed with this are comments from some of the artists’ descendants and friends, and other commentators who have been able to assess the impact of this work on the history of twentieth century art. The structure works well, and paints a compelling narrative, articulating the struggles that some of the artists had to endure to be able to express any kind of artistic freedom and the importance of the work that Savitsky initiated to preserve their intent.

But the key selling point is the artwork itself, the lush photography bringing out the extraordinary colours of many of the works to their fullest, and for the vast majority of us unable to make the trek to Uzbekistan any time soon this documentary serves as both a useful history and a fascinating portal into the artworks themselves. The modern day curator resists any temptation to break up the collection, such is its importance still regarded, and one hopes that this collection will continue to stand the test of time; in any event, this documentary serves as a fitting tribute to its creator.

Why see it at the cinema: To be able to appreciate on a grand scale the full impact of such an impressive collection of art, and to be able to fully immerse yourself in its richness.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: World’s Greatest Dad

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The Pitch: You know the little ginger one from Spy Kids? Wouldn’t want to be his dad…

The Review: Many famous actors, including Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Ross from Friends, have gone on to carve out careers as directors as well as being well-known actors. If you’re as recognisable an actor as Bobcat Goldthwait, then it’s understandable you may want to spend some time working behind the camera, not least because people’s expectations of you may be a little set in stone. Goldthwait attempted to change some of those with his first feature in fifteen years, the 2006 movie Sleeping Dogs, which was a twisted black comedy, and hasn’t strayed too far from this with his latest effort, but what he does have this time are some big names, not least Robin Williams.

Williams’ Lance Clayton is the father who’s trying to raise a teenage son on his own. So far, so mainstream, but when our first introduction to him is Dad walking in on son while he indulges in a little autoerotic asphyxiation. Shocking for him, and a good determinant as to your tolerance for the material. There are a lot of more traditional concerns on show, though; Lance is secretly dating a fellow teacher, but she may have other men on her mind, and his poetry class is failing at school. He’s also unable to get anything published, and is on the verge of giving up his dream of being a writer. Everything comes back to Lance’s son, and his relentless dysfunctionality threatens to derail what hopes Lance has left of any success in the rest of his life.

Williams has done manically funny and cheekily serious to strong effect in the past, but here gets to be sardonic and world-weary, especially as his relationship with his son evolves. He’s on great form here, and Daryl Sabara erases any memories of his cute Spy Kids days with a full commitment to being completely unlovable and utterly reprehensible. The rest of the cast do good work, although there are few other standouts in the acting department (unless you count Bobcat Goldthwait, whose cameo appearance late on is monumentally distracting, mainly because he is Bobcat Goldthwait). Goldthwait allows the story room to breathe, and doesn’t add too many showy touches, but instead showcases the dark vein of humour to its best.

There is, however, a significant second act twist which the trailer doesn’t spoil, and so I won’t either, but safe to say that twist does take things to some more deliciously dark places. The ending may feel at first as if it lacks the courage of the convictions of the earlier developments, but it is ultimately true to all the characters, and just as satisfying if slightly more twee than the rest of the material has led you to expect. On this form, though, any more Williams / Goldthwait collaborations would be most welcome.

Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of good, solid laughs to share with your fellow cinemagoers, and it’s always good to see a good Robin Williams movie back in the cinema.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Mr. Nice

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The Pitch: Howard The Skunk.

The Review: I spent four years at University in Bath, getting a degree and starting to develop my love of movies. While I was there, I came into contact with two things for the first time in my life: drugs, and the Welsh. Not a combination that I, or indeed anyone else, would necessarily put together, but that combination was responsible for one of the biggest drug trafficking rings ever seen in this country, or indeed any other. That Welshness was contributed fairly effectively by one man, Howard Marks, described by the Daily Mail as “the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time.”

Not that you’d know that from watching Mr. Nice. Rhys Ifans comes across as a fairly reasonable approximation of the man himself, and this is the story of his passage from the small coal-mining village where he grew up to Oxford, and the pronounced influence that had on his future direction. Despite becoming a big fan of recreational drugs, if Mr. Nice is to be believed Marks fell into his career almost by accident, just happening to be in either the right or wrong place at the appropriate time. Slowly but surely, he expands his influence and his reach, and every time an opportunity comes up, he takes it.

In order to get what he needs, he begins to rope in a motley crew of accomplices, and ends up getting involved with the IRA (a manic David Thewlis) and eventually even expands into the Americas (via a bearded Crispin Glover), despite the protestations of his wife (Chloe Sevigny), seemingly the only person who can appreciate the potential cost of the risks that Howard’s taking. Through the course of this, don’t expect deep insights into why Marks is doing what he’s doing, or passionate arguments for the legalisation of recreational drugs – those are only implied in the sense that this really isn’t Trainspotting, and the downsides of Howard’s habits are the run-ins with the law that he had, not from what he or any others ended up taking.

But freed from the weight of those expectations, this is an enjoyable romp. Bernard Rose has both adapted the screenplay and directed – his direction is unshowy, but there are little stylised touches (inserting Ifans into stock historical footage) and the occasional impressive image, but by and large he lets the story do the talking. Thewlis probably gets to have the most fun, raging around with his accent, while the only slight weak link is Sevigny, the accent wavering just occasionally and the performance also slightly shaky. There’s nothing shaky about anyone else, though, they’re all too tripped out on the material, so just sit back, revel in the absurdities of the story (all true, as long as you believe Marks), and have a good time, man.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s a few shots, such as a car crash, that will benefit from the big screen, but by and large you’d be here more for the company than the impact of the visuals.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Enter The Void

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The Pitch: Ghost Trainspotting.

The Review: Gaspar Noé is a moviemaker who is not unaccustomed to controversy. But when your movies feature such extremes of human behaviour, with violence and immorality not uncommon, then you’d be a little disappointed not to generate some controversy. So in theory we should know what to expect from his latest, except no-one could be prepared for the assault on the senses that Noé has lined up, and that’s just the opening credits, a whirling flash of neon that will likely cause most viewers to develop either epilepsy, ADHD or both.

Once your mind has adjusted to the shock, we’re taken down several notches, for Enter The Void is a trip – one long trip in the mind of a drug-dealing teenager called Oscar, who’s wound up in Tokyo and is now deep into the drug culture and gets high the moment we see him. Events are played out from his first person perspective, but when Oscar is seemingly double crossed by a friend, he’s shot and killed. For mere mortal movies, this would be a problem, but this is merely the start of Oscar’s trip, as he then views the lives of those around him from his unique out-of-body perspective.

Thankfully, the script had shoe-horned in numerous references to a ‘Tibetan Book Of The Dead’ which conveniently describes the events to come – Tibetans are the go-to guys on death and the afterlife, it seems, as they’ve laid out a three act structure which Oscar conveniently follows, broadly consisting of floaty head trip, life flashing before your eyes and search for meaning in existence. We swap between the first and third person in perspective, but we are Oscar for the duration. This does make Enter The Void something to be experienced rather than enjoyed from a narrative perspective, but Noé remains a supreme visual stylist and there’s enough invention and trickery on display here to fuel a dozen smaller movies.

On the positive side this is a visual feast, ranging from the fractal dreamscapes of the initial trip to the visceral gut-punches of some later sequences – nothing quite at the level of Irreversible, but there are still some indelible moments and a couple of recurring motifs that will leave a firm impression. However, this is counterbalanced by the early heavy-handedness of the script, the generally unexceptional quality of the acting but more than anything else by the length. There’s a couple of versions around and I was “lucky” enough to see the longer – even the shorter, currently checking in at around two hours twenty, would be at least twenty minutes too long. It’s probably the last section that dwells too long, but frankly the best drug to make it through this would be a strong dose of caffeine. Noé’s provocative style continues, but on this evidence it’s as likely to prompt frustration as anything.

Why see it at the cinema: If you have any intention of seeing this, then you absolutely must see it inside a cinema. From the opening credits, you have to completely immerse yourself in the experience to give it any chance, and unless you have a 200 inch home cinema, there’s only one way to do that.

The Score: 6/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Monsters

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The Pitch: Districto Nueve: Una Historia de Amor.

The Review: Since it came out last year and nabbed a Best Picture nomination, one of the commonest descriptions being attached to upcoming movies is that it will be ‘this year’s District 9’. Low budget but high on street cred and turning a good profit, the Neill Blomkamp sci-fi action thriller seemingly sets a good template for variations on the ‘War of the Worlds’-style alien invasion movie. So it’s my great relief to be able to tell you that the only similarities that Monsters has with it’s South African cousin are unknown actors and alien visitors in a realistic setting. If that sounds, in fact, very similar, let me reassure you that Monsters is a very different beast.

There’s a more traditional separation between man and alien here, the giant creatures kept at bay in an isolation zone, but it’s the fate of two humans that concerns us most. Whitney Able is the daughter of a publisher stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, and Scoot McNairy is the put-upon photographer tasked with getting her home safe. When things start to go wrong, he starts to take that mission personally, and becomes determined to get her home safely. Unlike District 9, there is a significant difference in scale between us and them, so the interactions and encounters are less frequent, but are no less effective for that.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Monsters even as a particular genre. To call it a road movie feels a disservice, while the sense of the epic trek that our pair must undertake cannot capture the full nature of what’s within the narrative. There’s an air of creeping dread and the situation is expertly used to push the two leads together. But while there are some tense scenes, and a palpable sense of peril at times, there are also moments of real beauty and the characters and their back stories come over as wholly authentic. In particular, the final third of the movie manages to combine the nervousness and thrills to most satisfying effect, and the whole movie has a feeling of reality and believability, both in its settings and in its characterisations.

Then you discover how things were done – Able and McNairy are the only two actual actors, the rest being made up of locals as the small crew went on their own road trip across three countries. Edwards had an outline, but allowed his actors the freedom to improvise based on some brief guidance. Then the effects, which are never less than impeccable and put a lot of this summer’s blockbusters to shame, were all done by Edwards using off-the-shelf kit that you could buy yourself for the price of a small car. The first time director has heard this described as both a monster movie for girls and a love story for boys, and seems comfortable with both descriptions. There is no denying that anyone not put off by the concept or the marketing stands a good chance of falling into a demographic that will get something special from this; not only an absorbing and epic journey for our protagonists, but also one of the most technically accomplished debuts in living memory. The thought of what Edwards could do with a big budget is inspiring, but if he can do this much with so little, just maybe he doesn’t need it?

Why see it at the cinema: The stunning landscapes, impeccable VFX work and even the intimate moments between the leads make this an essential cinema experience.

The Score: 9/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Winter’s Bone

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The Pitch: In The Bleak Mid-America.

The Review: The Sundance Film Festival has now been running for over 30 years, but in that time, although it’s initiated and promoted the careers of many illustrious film makers, the movies picking up the jury awards have generally found life a little tougher. But rather than being the kiss of death, receiving the Grand Jury prize seems to have given Winter’s Bone momentum, and talk of much bigger awards in next year’s season is already being banded around. In this case, that talk is justified, because what Sundance has discovered is a movie of real power, and within it a number of potential talents for the future.

At the centre of Winter’s Bone is Jennifer Lawrence. She portrays Ree Dolly, effectively left as head of the family despite being only seventeen, due to her mother’s spiral into illness and her father having disappeared after his seemingly only talent, for making crystal meth, has gotten him into trouble and leaves him facing a long jail term. Despite her age, she seems more than capable of caring for the family, although she has become reliant on the charity of neighbours due to their dire financial situation; when the bail bondsman arrives to announce that Dad used the family farm as part of his bail bond, it becomes apparent that finding him is the only way to ensure that she’s not protecting her family from somewhere in the woods.

The local community is isolated, with a division of roles down the line of the sexes that Ree finds herself on the wrong side of if she hopes to gain attention to her plight. But there’s a steely determination about her that keeps her on the path to finding the truth, and a willingness to consider any option. Unfortunately, this only serves to put her increasingly into harm’s way and she finds herself unsupported and challenged at every turn; not only does no-one want her to find her father, but it seems whatever’s happened is enough for them to be uncomfortable asking questions.

Given that she’s only a little older than the character she plays, Lawrence’s portrayal is remarkable. She perfectly embodies the resilience needed to stand up to the masculine hierarchy of the community who barely want to acknowledge her presence, but also shows her tender side when supporting the family, and the family’s plight feels all the more real for it. Those confrontations have a real edge from the start, but as matters escalate and the locals show their hand, or indeed their fists, Ree’s intractability shines through and is expertly balanced in all of the performances.

The other significant credit must go to director Debra Granik, who also contributes towards the screenplay adaptation. The bleakness of the community settings is thoroughly captured, and Granik uses this in conjunction with the tone of the performances to create an air of tension that threatens, and ultimately delivers, true menace. The pacing is unhurried but this just allows for the movie to apply its vice-like grip with that tension, and as events unfold there are some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments, before the narrative reaches its unflinchingly brutal resolution. But don’t be put off by the thought of that – although bleak, there is still a sense of hope, if not optimism, couched within that resolution. There is also an occasional sense of humour tempered through the bleakness, but more than enough to want to encourage you to become trapped in their world. Lawrence and Granik deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, and you owe it to yourself to experience this stunning adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark cinematography is well complemented by the intense performances, but the fact that the performances are understated, but effectively so, means that the big screen is the best place to capture all the subtleties.

The Score: 10/10

The Half Dozen Special: Cambridge Film Festival 2010

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Regular readers of my blog (there must be at least a couple of you – surely?) will know that I’ve been running a feature at the start of each month called The Half Dozen, where I look at the upcoming releases for the month and pick out a selection of six trailers that have caught my eye. They may not necessarily be the best six, and I may not manage to see all of the movies they relate to, but it’s hopefully been a good guide for myself and anyone else as to what’s around in a given month. (Link at the top of this page if you’d like to see my previous picks.)

However, the Cambridge Film Festival is almost upon us, and having not been to a single movie at the festival in the entire time I’ve lived in this area (just over three years), I’m making up for it in spades this year. I’m having a particularly cinematic summer, and after a double bill at the BFI IMAX in July and a trip to the BFI / Empire Movie-Con in August, my September is taking things to another level.

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