Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Round-up

Cambridge Film FestivalIt’s astonishingly late, but at last here’s a round-up of my reviews for TAKE ONE from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival. There was, as ever, a fine selection of films and special guests; when there are several movies you want to see all being shown at exactly the same time, then you know it’s going well. Two of the reviews below are actually of my favourite films in the whole line-up: the re-release of NOTHING BUT A MAN and the Middle Eastern western MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, and I was chuffed to be able to introduce the latter. Neil Brand’s two appearances – brilliantly accompanying the restored print of NOSFERATU and his NOT SO SILENT MOVIES family show – were also a highlight. The bar was always humming with activity and chatter, and the staff and volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly (not always easy when the inevitable last minute hiccups pop up). Not even the stinking cold I caught at the midway point could keep me away.

A pity then, that the excitement and atmosphere was somewhat dampened by the unsettling prospect of a death sentence being handed to the Arts Picturehouse by the Competition Commission, in its inexplicable bid to wreck one of Cambridge’s cultural pillars. We’ve yet to learn which of its cinemas Cineworld will sell in Cambridge, but the signs aren’t promising: the Picturehouses in both Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen have already been given their marching orders, and Cineworld don’t appear to be interested in appealing the Commission’s decision. So what becomes of the Festival next year is anybody’s guess.

Press pass

However, that didn’t stop Tony Jones and his seemingly tireless team from putting on a great show. All sort of new discoveries, old faithful friends and other intriguing oddities were given the big screen treatment. If this does prove to be the last festival in its current form, then at least it bowed out with grace and pride intact. Well done to all.

So here are my reviews:

My Sweet Pepper Land
A satisfying blend of Middle Eastern drama and spaghetti western homage, MY SWEET PEPPER LAND is a flavoursome brew to savour. Director Hiner Saleem (himself a Kurd) has created, in some ways, a rather old-fashioned drama which frequently raises the expectation of violence in one form or another, but mostly backs away from the bloody retribution normally associated with the genre. The result is a film where tensions remain bottled and passions are kept in check, with the outcome feeling slightly unsatisfying as a consequence.

My Beautiful Country
A new spin on the old biblical story of The Good Samaritan, MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY delicately explores a tentative romance between a young Serbian widow and a wounded Albanian soldier against the backdrop of the 1999 Kosovo War. Whilst there may not be anything dramtically fresh or new in Michaela Kezele’s film, it does wield plenty of emotional heft in its focus on a forbidden romance and the unforeseen consequences of helping someone who has suddenly become the enemy. It also attempts to raise awareness (none too subtly) of the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO in the conflict, through a sub-plot centred on children’s wartime experiences.

Machete Kills
Danny Trejo’s indestructible federale returns in this amusing if nonsensical sequel to the original 2010 grindhouse-inspired parody. Changing tack from the down-and-dirty revenge movies that drove the earlier plot, the inspiration this time around is late 70s/early 80s action films; and director Robert Rodriguez takes his cue from Roger Moore’s Bond era, when gadgets and fantastical action came to the fore. This entry is basically Rodriguez reconfiguring his family SPY KIDS movies for adults, adding lashings of violence and saucy humour to the mix.

Nothing But A Man
A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.

Google and the World Brain
Just how much intellectual property should be placed in the hands of a single entity? And who exactly should profit from it? It’s a moral dilemma that Ben Lewis’ compelling documentary attempts to pick apart through an investigation of Google’s digital books project. Inevitably it fails to explore the issue in as much depth as the subject truly deserves, but given the importance of the debate, Lewis should be applauded for getting it this far into the public eye. After all, the decisions being made now about how far one company can go in publishing any book it chooses may have far-reaching consequences for us all.

What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.

In the name of sanity, save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

Cambridge Arts PicturehouseI’ve been tweeting like mad the past few days about the campaign to save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse from sale or closure. This monumentally stupid predicament has been forced upon it by the UK Competition Commission who, in a fit of extreme diligence, have decided that having two cinemas with differing aims and audiences but owned by the same business in the same city is a social evil that must be prevented at all costs.

In fact, in their provisional findings, the Commission have recommended that either the Picturehouse or the Cineworld in Cambridge must be disposed of by parent company Cineworld Plc. Given that the Picturehouse, with its more adventurous programming and smaller number of screens, is surely the less profitable, it would seem likely that it is the one in imminent danger of eviction, which would be a huge loss to Cambridge as a city, not just its loyal customer base.

A coalition of local writers and cinema-goers have urged the Commission to think again. In a press release, we have set out the reasons why their findings are fundamentally flawed:

  • The Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas have strikingly different programmes and settings, making them very different propositions with only minor audience overlap (which was the reason cited by Cineworld for purchasing the Picturehouse chain in the first place)
  • The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse is home to an array of in-house skills and screen technology (like the much-valued ability to run 70mm screenings), the likes of which are almost impossible to access outside of London
  • The Arts Picturehouse hosts renowned events like the Cambridge Film Festival, is the base for long-term community projects like the Cambridge Film Consortium, and stages other cultural events such as exhibitions, school activities and film education
  • There are many audience members who, if deprived of the quieter ambience of the Picturehouses under threat, would simply stop going to the cinema altogether – this is especially true of older audience members
  • Local independent competition still exists in the form of the VUE cinema in Cambridge’s The Grafton shopping centre
  • The social atmosphere engendered at all three Picturehouses under threat, from the welcoming and knowledgeable staff to the variety of food and drink available in the bar, is one that would irrevocably disappear under new management

Please sign the petition to indicate your support for a cinema that deserves to be protected, not sold off. And by all means write to the Competition Commission too.

Thanks for reading. You can find further coverage on TAKE ONE, the official organ (as they used to say) of the Cambridge Film Festival, which may well find itself homeless this time next year as a result, and The Movie Evangelist, who has done sterling work in breaking down the report and revealing it to be useless bilge.

We can only hope that common sense prevails. Whichever cinema it loses, Cambridge will be worse off. Consumers are the only losers here. Let’s make the Commission see that.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 11

Date: Sunday 23 September

Films: 3 – The Extraordinary Voyage/A Trip to the Moon; Marnie; Holy Motors

Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 1 water, 1 tea, 1 peppermint tea, 1 Carlsberg; 1 Strongbow

Biscuits: 2

Verdict: A great final day of the festival. First up was The Extraordinary Voyage, a documentary about the importance and restoration of a rare colour version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. One of the highlights of this year’s festival has been the strength of the silent movie presence, following on from the British Silent Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary gave a very accessible and entertaining overview of Méliès career and how the restoration took place over more than a decade. It was preceded by a showing of the end result, the fully restored film (including elements I hadn’t seen before in other surviving versions) along with a jarring new electronic soundtrack, which initially brought back horrible memories of the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis, but improved as it went along.

The last entry in the Hitchcock Revisited strand was Marnie, one of his later works which I hadn’t seen before. Plenty to like and admire – a couple of good suspense sequences in particular – but its attitude towards the psychologically damaged Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and her treatment at the hands of Sean Connery’s aggressive lover has dated it in some unfortunate and uncomfortable ways. It’s also a touch overlong, but as compensation it does feature a splendidly lush Bernard Herrmann score.

Finally, the closing night film was Holy Motors, a bewildering tour-de-force of whimsical nonsense, with a plot that is deliberately impenetrable but entertains and challenges in any number of ways. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a film: a pointless puzzle so beautifully contrived that attempting to solve it seems futile, but doesn’t stop you trying anyway.

After that it was back to the bar at the Arts Picturehouse for celebratory drinks and the obligatory photos. I had a fantastic time as part of the Take One team at this year’s festival, and I can only hope I’ll be there to do it all again next year.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 10

Date: Saturday 22 September

Films: 3.5 – Not-So-Silent Movies; The Birds; The Ring; Thundercrack!

Beverages: 2 teas, 1 water, 1 peppermint tea, 1 Guinness

Biscuits: None

Verdict: Today started brilliantly with the Not-So-Silent Movies session led by Neil Brand, introducing families and kids to the world of silent cinema. So we had clips from shorts like The (?) Motorist, The Fatal Sneeze, The Great Train Robbery, and Laurel and Hardy. The latter went down brilliantly with the children, who squealed with laughter as they hit each other and ripped people’s trousers off. Joyous.

Then it was straight in to The Birds, Hitchcock’s freaky horror from 1963. It was a revelation on the big screen, with surprising levels of tension and feathery violence. The fact there is no musical soundtrack only amplifies the suspense. Another Hitch classic.

It was the big man again later on with The Ring, his 1927 silent drama about a love triangle between two boxers and a girl who can’t choose between them. Surprisingly long – almost two hours – yet the time flew by. Neil Brand on the piano again no doubt was instrumental in this. Lightweight compared to his later works it might be, but well worth revisiting.

Finally I tried to make it through Thundercrack!, a bizarre cult item showing in the Scala Beyond strand, but despite some unintentionally hilarious dialogue and performances, I had to bail. Sleep beckoned, and there’s only so much sleaze a guy can take.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 8

Date: Thursday 20 September

Films: 1 – Vertigo (plus a Hitchcock talk given by George Perry)

Beverages: 2 teas

Biscuits: One large banoffee cookie (purely for medicinal purposes)

Verdict: A quiet day today before the final three days of the festival. Just the one film, but a biggie: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in a brand new restored print on the massive Screen 1 at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. I’ve only seen it once before, so I was keen to reacquaint myself with the film recently voted as the greatest ever in Sight and Sound’s esteemed decennial poll. Inevitably it failed to live up to such massive hype; it’s surprisingly un-Hitchcockian in some ways, being rather slow-paced and with a central character who becomes increasingly disturbed and unsympathetic as the story progresses. Yet I wanted to see it again almost immediately after it finished, which clearly suggests that Vertigo not only invites repeated viewings but demands it. One can easily see why it’s been re-examined over the years; the ideas about recapturing or escaping the past, about love and obsession, about history repeating itself clearly make it a film student’s dream. It doesn’t entertain like the best of his films – there’s none of the subversive fun of Rear Window, say – but it is clearly the work of a master.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 7

Date: Wednesday 19 September

Films: 3 – Now is Good; Looking East; Frank

Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 2 teas, 1 coke, 1 peppermint tea

Biscuits: 2

Verdict: Not as many films as I would have liked – I sadly missed the opening film in the Francesco Rosi season – but Take One reviewing duties took precedence (which is fine; I’ll be seeing at least one of the Rosi films later on in the festival).  Now is Good was a serviceable weepie aimed squarely at the teen market: not particularly well written or performed, but slickly made and it pushes the right buttons along the way. Destined to become a big dvd hit among 14-year-old girls everywhere.

Looking East forms part of the regular strand of archive programming at the Arts Picturehouse, digging up ancient treasures from the East Anglian Film Archive among others. There was some brilliant footage of work outings and sporting events, stretching from the turn of the century to the 1970s – including the opening ceremony of the Lion Yard shopping centre in Cambridge.

Finally, Frank was a low-budget but strikingly shot UK drama about a man coping with mental illness in a rundown seaside town in the North East. Dark, and darkly imaginative, it features a terrific central performance from Darren Beaumont as the damaged Frank, who spends his time collecting anything and everything in his squalid flat – even two dead bodies he finds washed up on the shore. Not the easiest watch and it doesn’t completely work, but a memorable experience nonetheless.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 6

Date: Tuesday 18 September

Films: 3 – Flying Blind; Notorious; The Night Elvis Died

Beverages: 1 americano, 1 tea, 1 tea sipped then misplaced, 1 lemonade, 1 peppermint tea (after hot tip from bar staff), 1 lager

Biscuits: None

Verdict: Nice mixture of films today. The British low-budget Flying Blind was nicely shot and well performed, but the script soon revealed itself as a heavy-handed political statement hiding beneath a token love story, focussing on the relationship between a young Islamic student and an older woman (Helen McRory) who happens to work for the MOD. More at home on ITV.

Notorious continued the Hitchcock strand, and made an interesting switch from some of his more action-centric thrillers like North by Northwest. This was Hitch in more subdued form, with Cary Grant taking a back seat to Ingrid Bergman in the lead, and suspense is built up around who knows what, rather than anyone chasing a MacGuffin. Cracking stuff.

Finally I dipped my toe in to the Catalan season with The Night Elvis Died, a Lynchian drama with splashes of the surreal about townsfolk trying to put on their traditional Passion Play amidst financial woes and many personal problems. It’s not nearly as straightforward as that sounds though. Themes bubble up to the surface, but don’t try looking for a conventional plot. Absorbing, frustrating, amusing and beautiful, in pretty much equal measure.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 5

Date: Monday 17 September

Films: 2 – Untouchable; The Lodger

Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 2 teas

Biscuits: 2

Verdict: Another disappointing number of screenings today, due to review writing and Take One editing duties. However, both were great choices. Untouchable was an unashamedly feel-good drama about the relationship between a paralysed rich guy and a poor immigrant ex-con who becomes his carer. It might sound like Oscar-bait, but it’s a genuine joy to watch, with excellent performances from the two leads.

The Lodger, Hitchcock’s classic silent suspenser from 1927, was an atmospheric treat: the great man doing everything in his power to cast suspicion on Ivor Novello’s mysterious boarder. It might not be able to compare with the best of Hitch’s works, but it’s undoubtedly a strong stepping stone to greater things. The new score by Nitin Sawhney was too insistent at times for my liking, but still added layers of tension to the action on screen.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 4

Date: Sunday 16 September

Films: 1 – North by Northwest

Beverages: 1 coke

Biscuits: 1

Verdict: A poor performance today, thanks to the combination of a late night last night, a long-ish film today and a need for an early night. North by Northwest as terrifically entertaining on the big screen as ever it was, with Cary Grant at his most suave and Hitch clearly having a ball with several classic set-pieces rubbing shoulders with each other. Preceding the film was a talk by director Richard Bracewell on Hitchcock’s technical expertise, examining his use of montage, composition and point of view shots. Fascinating stuff, if necessarily brief.

Must try harder tomorrow.

CamFilmFest Diary: Day 3

Date: Saturday 15 September

Films: 3 – Rebecca; War Witch; Dead Before Dawn 3D

Beverages: 1 americano, 2 cokes, 1 red wine

Biscuits: 1

Verdict: Hopes for a four-film day were sadly dashed, but there can be no finer way to begin a festival day than seeing a classic Hitchcock, which Rebecca unquestionably is. The big screen really allows the gothic visuals and sumptuous sets to immerse the audience, while Hitch’s camerawork subtly suggesting the offscreen presence of the first Mrs De Winter works a treat. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the lead roles are great, but the icing on the cake is a supporting cast that includes Nigel Bruce AND George Sanders – legends both.

After that came War Witch, a drama about a young girl brutally recruited in to a rebel army in the Congo and her attempts to deal with the atrocities she is forced to commit. It sounds harrowing and it occasionally is, but director Kim Nguyen sensitively portrays the violence and trauma that Komona undergoes, never allowing the film to become an ordeal. On the contrary, it’s a moving and rewarding experience.

Dead Before Dawn 3D rounded off the day with a welcome dose of silliness as zombie demons (a.k.a. Zemons) threaten to take over the world, in a homage to The Evil Dead among many, many others. The cast – including another legend, Christopher “Great Scott!” Lloyd – give it their all, summoning up plenty of giggles if not outright guffaws.