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
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.
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
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.
Date: Friday 21 September
Films: 2 – The Mattei Affair; Blackmail
Beverages: 1 tea, 1 glass of red wine
Biscuits: 1, plus one large smartie cookie (just because)
Verdict: Not as productive as I would have liked in the end – had hoped to catch a morning screening – but both movies were very good. The Mattei Affair was the first film I’ve caught in the Francesco Rosi season, in a brand new restoration that was apparently premièring for the first time outside of Venice. A fascinating drama-documentary (mostly drama though) about an infamous incident in Italian post-war history, which beats its political drum very loudly but is no less gripping for it. This at least had subtitles showing, which an earlier screening apparently did not.
Hitchcock’s Blackmail was yet another of his restored silent movies, this time with piano accompaniment from John Sweeney. As funny, exciting and inventive as you would expect from the Master of Suspense; only the vaguely unsatisfactory ending disappoints. The Hitchcock strand at this year’s festival has been truly brilliant.
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.
Date: Wednesday 19 September
Films: 3 – Now is Good; Looking East; Frank
Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 2 teas, 1 coke, 1 peppermint tea
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.
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
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.
Date: Monday 17 September
Films: 2 – Untouchable; The Lodger
Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 2 teas
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.
Date: Sunday 16 September
Films: 1 – North by Northwest
Beverages: 1 coke
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.
Date: Saturday 15 September
Films: 3 – Rebecca; War Witch; Dead Before Dawn 3D
Beverages: 1 americano, 2 cokes, 1 red wine
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.
Date: Friday 14 September
Films: 3 – Hope Springs; Camp 14: Total Control Zone; The Pleasure Garden
Beverages: 1 cappuccino, 2 teas, 1 coke
Verdict: First full day of the festival began with a catch-up screening of Hope Springs, which I missed last night as it clashed with Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. A few decent moments aside, Hope Springs felt artificial and often descended in to the painfully predictable. Meryl Streep reprises her role from Mamma Mia, while Tommy Lee Jones plays Tommy Lee Jones. Best bits played over the end credits.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone was eye-opening if nothing else – the true story of a man who escaped from a North Korea labour camp, where he had spent his entire life. Some pretty hideous stories emerge, and though director Marc Wiese admirably lets him speak for himself, the documentary would have benefited from a longer stay in the editing suite.
Finally, the Hitchcock Revisited strand kicked off with The Pleasure Garden, the director’s first full-length feature from 1925. Plenty of laughs, thrills and saucy goings-on in this ripe melodrama about two dancers on the London stage. A few unmistakable Hitch touches help it rise above the average.