Cambridge Film Festival 2014 Day 3: I Believe In Unicorns, The Police Officer’s Wife, N: The Madness Of Reason, Love Steaks, The Case Against 8, Inferno

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People seem to think that I see a lot of films. My view is that you only get one life, so you might as well make the most of it, and I do try to do that wherever possible. I would have hoped, over the years, that my actual job as a planning manager and my repeated gift for taking on too much would have improved my ability to filter this down to a manageable level – even if manageable for me is extreme for most people. For the first time, the change in festival dates meant that I had an uninterrupted run on the first Saturday, so as usual I piled content into my schedule with gleeful abandon. I’ll leave you to be the judge as to how well I’ve got the balance.

Here’s a breakdown of my Saturday, an episode of 24 if Jack Bauer were a tall, cuddly film blogger rather than an international menace.

08:00 Drag myself out of bed. Hoping to get day 2 blogged and two screeners watched before the day starts.

08:30 Still in the bathroom. Review early morning plans down somewhat.

08:55 Breakfast. Shredded Wheat Orchard Fruits, semi-skimmed milk, two rounds of low fat bacon sandwich. Well, I am on a diet.

09:20 Realise I have an hour and twenty minute film to watch, and that I have an hour and twenty-five minutes until I go out. Decide to watch it on the iPhone so I can see some while in the bath.

09:25: I Believe In Unicorns

I Believe In Unicorns

I Believe In Unicorns is the début feature from writer / director Leah Meyerhoff, a sexual coming of age story that embellishes its story with stop-motion animation and other dreamlike images. Davina (Natalia Dyer) is a teenage girl caring for her disabled mother (played by Meyerhoff’s own mother). In an attempt to distract herself from her family labours, she embarks on a relationship with Sterling (Peter Vack), an older boy who seems engrossed in her one minute and distant the next. Her relationship with Sterling grows more complex and as she finds herself drawn to him more closely, his true nature becomes apparent to her.

Thinking back, I seem to remember having a fairly vivid imagination as a child, but I couldn’t honestly put my finger on the point when that stopped intruding on my waking thoughts. For Davina, the transition is more obvious, and her initial fantasies – the occasional scene interspersed with the stop motion unicorn – take on different forms as her relationship becomes more tempestuous, reflecting visually the changes in her own mind and mood. Dyer and Mack are both very strong in their respective roles and their awkward chemistry extremely believable, and Meyerhoff’s cast also includes more famous names including Julia Garner (currently in Sin City 2) and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Colour) in small roles. There’s a risk that mixing the animated elements with the drama could become twee or overly sugary, but Meyerhoff strikes a good balance between the two sides. There are shades of Badlands in the young lovers’ relationship, and while no classic Unicorns can at least be mentioned favourably in the same sentence; I only wish that Terrence Malick had thought to include a cuddly animated unicorn or two in some of his later films.

The Score: 7/10

10:50 Get in car late, drive nervously to Cambridge as the car is now making a rattling sound and the first appointment I can get for the work garage is 9th September.

11:20 Arrive at industrial estate where I normally park the car on a Saturday if walking into Cambridge to discover it’s packed to the rafters, nary a space in sight. Have already paid for car parking in town for two days, can’t afford to add a third.

11:30 Finally find a space of sorts at the far end of the estate. Prepare to spend the rest of the day worrying that the car is going to be broken into / crashed into / clamped / all of the above because I’m too tight to pay for a car park. Have brisk walk past train station to Cambridge 105 studios.

11:45 Arrive at Bums On Seats later than hoped. Everyone else seems to be in a relaxed mood, which helps greatly. Try to hide the two enormous sweat patches that for some reason have developed around my waist thanks to my brisk walk. Wonder if, when I come to write this up, that might be too much detail. Decide to worry about that later.

12:00 Take part in lively and forthright Bums On Seats festival special with host Toby Miller and fellow reviewers Edd Elliott and Sarah Dillon. We cover Night Moves (two thumbs up), I Believe In Unicorns (I’m keener than Toby and Edd, neither of whom seem that taken) and Magic In The Moonlight (where the general debate is how bad it is on a relative scale; I try to stick up for Colin Firth and Eileen Atkins a bit, in the face of general contempt from everyone else who’s seen it).

12:45 Abandon Bums before they get to Atilla Marcel in order to have another sweat patch-inducing charge across Cambridge, this time walking to the Arts Picturehouse to see my first film to review for Take One, safe in the knowledge that it’s a film that lasts nearly three hours and I should hopefully have dried before I come out. Remind myself to head to or iTunes to catch the podcast of the show later in the week for the bits I’ve missed.

12:48 Tweet from the graveyard behind Cambridge 105 studios that I’m walking to the cinema, because clearly I have no concept of time.

12:57 Arrive at the Arts Picturehouse in time to grab a cup of tea and my press ticket. Kick myself that I have left three unproductive minutes in the day.

13:00 The Police Officer’s Wife (Die Frau des Polizisten)

The Police Officer's Wife

The Police Officer’s Wife is an exercise in form and construction, and archly designed in the sense of a greater purpose. Over the course of fifty-eight chapters, each one with a slowly revealed title card fore and aft indicating the chapter number, a number of initially unconnected threads are glimpsed. We see an old man alone in the snow or in his apartment; a variety of wildlife, both in forest and urban settings; and three members of a young family, the father (David Zimmerschied) a police officer about his business, and a mother (Alexandra Finder) and daughter bonding over a small patio garden. We also catch sight of the occasional bruise on the mother’s body, before the father’s increasingly erratic behaviour becomes more apparent – if never comprehensible – and the mother is left to wonder what lengths her husband might be prepared to go to.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the structure, the repetitious nature attempting to reinforce the monotony of the mother’s insular life and the chapters not directly related to the family adding ambiguity – and, in the case of the chapters where one or more family members sing slightly creepy children’s songs directly to camera, increasing the overall sense of unease – but the film never has a sense of flow and the fact that it takes the best part of an hour for the patterns to become apparent may have seen half the audience fatally alienated by that point anyway. Those that have stuck with it will find that the increasingly troubled cycle of violence is actually a compelling interpretation of a desperate family struggle, and by last hour the tension whenever we realise the chapter has started in the family home and the mother Claudia may once again be subjected to a beating horribly reminiscent of what domestic abuse sufferers must feel in their own homes. The ending is both ambiguous and deeply troubling, depending on your interpretation, but this is a film stymied from greatness by its own insistence on rigidly adhering to a template. Still made me feel I’d been beaten round the head myself.

The Score: 7/10

15:55 Generally brutalised, head to the bar. Run into Becky Innes with her daughter (Becky heads up the Family Film Festival which is already in full swing). They allow me to hug a cuddly Gruffalo as therapy. Helps enormously.

16:05 Catch up with the Arts Film Club members Mike O’Brien, Hugh Taylor and Hilary Goldsmith as they prepare to screen their first Shortreel Award winner ahead of the evening showing of Ida. Decide this is the best time to have some food, so order the soup of the day (carrot, parsnip and apple) and a bow of the Picturehouse’s finest herby chips.

16:10 See Jack Toye, marketing manager of the Picturehouse, attempting to Face Time Natalia Dyer ahead of a Skype Q & A after the screening of I Believe In Unicorns currently taking place. About to try to wave down the phone but then remember film is not a two way medium and she has no idea who I am. Also realise that, given I watched her film on the same device Jack is now talking to her on, that my day has pretty much eaten its own tail at this point and it’s still not even half over.

16:15 Soup and chips arrive. Chips wolfed down in a few minutes, soup still far too hot to eat.

16:25 Soup still not cooling down. Go to bar and ask them to put cold water in it.

16:27 Eat soup.

16:29 Take my seat in next film, while feeling a slight blistering in the roof of my mouth that tells me my soup was probably still just a shade too hot. Ow.

16:30 N: The Madness Of Reason

N The Madness Of Reason

N takes its launching off point from the life of Frenchman Raymond Borremans, who left Europe for Africa in the mid-20th century. He spent forty years working in the Cote D’Ivoire and began compiling an encyclopaedia of the area, which despite being published after his death was only complete up to the first thirteen letters. His spirit seems unable to rest, so he appears to both figures from his own past and others, including a female who talks to spirits, and tries to understand both how to find peace and how to come to terms with the reality of a world that has moved on since his passing, not always in the most desirable of directions; the land is riven with civil war and Borremans’s attempts to finish his work from beyond the grave will also need to take this new world into account.

The Madness Of Reason is a deeply unusual take on what could have been a very static subject. Writer / director Peter Krüger’s film succeeds in being ethereal and graceful, yet still creates a compelling and surprisingly structured picture of a country with a rich heritage but some deep modern problems. If you can buy into the conceit that Krüger’s working with, then The Madness Of Reason with individual moments that can be both profound and beautiful as well as an overall narrative that echoes some of the other ghosts of a nation’s past and present. Calmly narrated by Michael Lonsdale, The Madness Of Reason is a study in compulsion, obsession, memory and reason that elevates itself above standard documentary and creates a distinctive portrayal of both man and country.

The Score: 8/10

18:12 Film finishes. My next film starts in three minutes in a different building. Have had DM from Sarah McIntosh asking if I’ve seen Ningen. Suspect a Q & A hosting is somewhere in my future.

18:13 Have stopped to talk to Toby and Sarah D again. Toby confirms Sarah M looking for Q & A support. Sarah D has now seen I Believe In Unicorns and thought it was great. I feel instantly validated.

18:14 Realise stopping to talk was casual in the extreme. Run headlong through traffic with scant regard for my own safety across the road to Emmanuel College. Dash through the first courtyard, take a left, get lost in the second courtyard, see helpful intern, dash through two more passageways, up the stairs, barrel into the screen and thankfully it’s only just starting.

18:15 Love Steaks

Love Steaks

Love Steaks appears at first to be a common or garden love story, it’s the pairing of Clemens (Franz Rogowski), a young trainee masseuse at a health resort who finds himself gradually caught up with kitchen apprentice Lara (Lana Cooper) in a tentative romance. The obstacles to anything more than casual feeling developing would appear to be Clemens’ crushing shyness – coupled with an unfortunate clumsiness – and Lara’s dependence on alcohol. As they conduct their relationship in any dark corners of the resort they can find, barely away from the prying eyes of the rest of the staff, they strike a deal: Clemens will be more assertive if Lara cuts out here drinking, but it’s not clear if either party will be able to keep to their side of the bargain.

Where Love Steaks is most successful is with its attempts at comedy, with a lightness of tone and Clemems’ enjoyable pratfalls keeping the first hour moving briskly. Cooper and Rogowski make a believable odd coupling, but it’s when the comedy turns to drama that Love Steaks isn’t quite as successful. The decision to make Cooper the alcoholic feels on the surface a brave one but the drama never rises above shouting and general angst and the attempt to drive to a resolution diminishes the credibility somewhat. Taken as a light romantic comedy then it’s successful on those limited terms, but without being able to mesh the more serious notes successfully with the laughs it feels slim and inconsequential; a film where actually another ten minutes or so on the compact 90 minute run time might have actually worked in its favour.

19:45 See Sarah M after the Love Steaks screening, agree to pick up the Q & A tomorrow, although as they’ve already done two not yet confirmed they’ll want to do a third. Head to Sainsbury’s across the road from the cinema. Lose half an hour in no time catching up on social media and starting to research Ningen. Give up any hope of further blogging, and realise I’m now about to fall criminally behind, for the third year in a row.

20:29 Is it that time already? Maybe I’ll get some work done after the next film, I’ve got half an hour.

20:30 The Case Against 8

Jeff Zarrillo, Paul Katami

The Case Against 8 is an HBO produced documentary which charts the four year struggle to overturn California’s Proposition 8. Despite gay marriage being legalised in the state in 2008, Prop 8 defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and received a surprising “Yes” vote at the same time Barack Obama was voted president. The vote had the consequence of invalidating thousands of gay marriages that had already taken place. Campaigners took the step of pursuing a federal lawsuit to challenge the legality of the ban, with two couples seeking to regain their right to an equal marriage with mixed couples the standard bearers for the case as it weaves its way through a succession of both the state and the land’s highest courts.

Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary has a huge asset in the two highly charismatic lawyers employed to argue the lawsuit. David Boies and Ted Olsen were on opposite sides of the Bush / Gore Florida case in 2000 that decided the fate of the presidency, but became friends during the case and it’s their collaboration – proving that the issue of gay marriage is not one split simply across political lines but a more challenging civil rights issue that should be unifying in its morality – that is one of many damning insights into the nature of politics and how issues of person and civil rights can get caught up unfairly. The one loss is that cameras were banned from the courtroom, but Cotner and White still manage to stage their case effectively, using interviews and the participants reading back from court transcripts to strike deep at the heart of the issues. In good documentary, you naturally feel that both sides should receive an equal airing but all parties are at pains to make clear what sadly still isn’t self-evident to many; that this shouldn’t be an issue and that discrimination in this sense, when progress has been made against discrimination from race to gender but much less in understanding of sexuality, and it would take a hard heart not to feel deeply for the two couples as they edge closer to realising their dream.

The Score: 8/10

22:21 Discover that the film is much longer than I thought. Give up any hope of getting anything even vaguely productive done today. Any sensible person would at this point stop watching films and start writing something.

22:30 Inferno


The final film of day 3 was another in the Retro 3D season, this time Roy Ward Baker’s contribution to the 3D fad of the Fifties. He could teach most of his contemporaries a thing or ten about how to construct images and frame shots for the third dimension; while most of the “chuck stuff in your face” comes in the last ten minutes, the use of 3D to create depth of field and to emphasise Robert Ryan’s desolation and loneliness in his desert struggle is remarkable. Despite the desert setting, it’s more of a noir than a Western, as Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan leave Fleming’s husband Ryan to rot in the desert in the hopes of claiming his fortune, but without counting on Ryan’s reserves of unexpected resourcefulness. Ryan’s grimly humorous voiceover keeps us interested in his plight, and the dramatic showdown is both a great use of the third dimension and a fittingly fiery climax. Inferno is worth about a thousand lazy post-conversions of the latest action epic, and given that you can could the great live action 3D films of the modern era on the fingers of one hand, it’s a shame that Inferno isn’t more widely known or regarded; hopefully this great looking restoration will go some way to changing that.

The Score: 8/10

00:05 Begin the long walk back to the car, having seen so much but written so little. Maybe tomorrow. Car turns out to be fine, maybe because I spend all day worrying about it, and I arrive home around one in the morning for a few precious hours’ sleep before returning to do it all again the next day, and loving every minute of it.