Cambridge Film Festival 2008 - Part 1

Myself and Ms. Plants have returned tired and weary from Cambridge and its Film Festival, and are looking forward to getting a rest by going back at work. We didn't just watch films, we also took time out to see some of the sights and travel to nearby towns as well. It's a marvellous place, full of beautiful architecture and countryside, with the university buildings naturally being one of the biggest draws. Being a university city as well, it's full of the sort of "vibrancy" that you would expect, with less of the drunken fighting.

The films were of a generally good standard, perhaps not up to that of the Leeds Film Festival last November (incidentally, according to their myspace page the festival brochure for this year is available on October 10th, and I heartily recommend going) but the whole trip was well worth doing. As with most festivals, the films were taken from a broad pool of the worldwide output; long films, short films, future blockbusters and subtitled oddities, documentaries and comedies. There were re-screenings of some older classics which gave us young-uns the chance to see some of them in their intended setting, and the old folks a bit of nostalgia, and there was a chance to see some early examples from the quietly emerging medium of machinima.

Over the week we took in about 17 films (if we don't count splitting up the short film collections; then its 28), and below is a brief resume of each of them, plus some of the other things we did. For anyone interested in other films I've covered at these sort of things, there's also my posts for the Cambridge 2007 and Leeds 2007 over on the Old Home Bullettin Board, a nice little corner of the Internet to stroll through.

20 September

Jimmy Carr

Once we arrived, it was pretty much straight out to the Corn Exchange to see Jimmy Carr, possibly the smuggest git in the history of everything, but can be very funny as well. In a performance almost designed to accommodate the hecklers and drunks shouting things out, he gave us plenty of laughs, especially when handing over control to the audience so they can make fools of themselves.

21 September

Cambridge Botanical Gardens (site)

A bit of a fiddle to get into, but the gardens were looking beautiful. I'm not sure what sort of weather Cambridge has been having during the year but if it was anything like t'north it would have been wet and cold. Despite this, the morning sun was out and everything was in bloom and looking great. A nice easing into the week after the long drive down the day before.

The Understudy (US 2008)

Our first film ended up being a good one. The Understudy is about Rebecca, a struggling actress trying to get work in anything she can get, and eventually, through unconventional means manages to get a job as the understudy to the leading actress in Electra, a clumsy stage play set in a quasi-roman era. Simone is predictably an arse to work with, and is clearly slept her way to the top, and comes to rely on Rebecca's grungy life as a source of inspiration to get into the part, something Rebecca has already managed. On the preview night, pneumonia strikes Simone and Rebecca takes over at the last moment, and revells in her new success with her sisters, used to Rebecca's lack of progress in her chosen career.
Things start going wrong when Simone returns to take over on the proper opening night, they have a spat and Rebecca ends up pushing her off the balcony, putting her in a coma. For the moment, she gets away with it without suspicion, but with a nut-allergic replacement soon in the picture, and the lies beginning to mount, can Rebecca keep her stardom and just how far would she go? The Understudy was sharp and funny, and well recommended. 8/10

Time To Die (Poland 2007) (review)

Filmed in Black and White, this subtitled film revolved entirely around the day-to-day existence of a 93-year old woman, living in a large run-down house in an overgrown garden. Bothered by the local kids trying to break in and play in the grounds, the houses' tempremental electricity, her neighbour trying to convince her to move so he can have the land, and her lardbucket daughter whining about inheritance, her only true friend is her dog Phila, (easily one of the most talented animals to grace the screen) with whom she shares her many monologues.
We first meet with Aniela just as her current tenants are leaving her alone in the house; the only way she can continue to live there is if she can do it up and have someone to occupy the many empty rooms. She tries to convince her good-for-nothing son to move in, who seems to agree without ever getting round to it, so we see her in a frustrated situation haunting the empty rooms and looking in on the nearby lives from her window. Every now and then, memories of her past come back, triggered by some unconnected but familiar situation and we see her as she was many years previously, on her wedding day, or watching her bright son leave for school with the world at his feet. The film found its focus and became a view on the seemingly hopless fight of this likeable old woman to put her estate in order before she died.
The more I watched Time To Die, the more I liked it. If I was to give it a score after seeing the first half alone, it'd probably be a 5 or so (partly down to the white subtitles being often hidden in bright scenes but it also took its time to get going). However, I would recommend seeing it and watching through to its very emotional and satisfying conclusion, which for me pushed it up a few points. 7.5/10

22 September

God Made Them Blind (Aus 2008)

John Fawcett is the subject of this documentary as he spends the autumn of his life in Indonesia, where the rate of cateract blindness cases are at some of their highest. In a culture where such things are seen as a curse given by god as punishment for things done in a past life, the relatively simple operation to correct the problems (if done early enough) are not as straightforward as you may think, especially with those who believe trying to correct them goes against the wishes of their gods. Though the film was definitely worthwhile and it is difficult to knock one which is trying to bring an overlooked problem to the attention of the world, it did lose steam about halfway through, concentrating purely on Fawcetts' own personal life story which while fairly interesting, was not related to the main subject matter and thrust of the film. 6.5/10

UK Shorts 2

This was one of several short film segments that was on show, each film being no more than about 10 minutes in length.
Hometime : About a schoolgirl who did not want to return home from school for fear of who was waiting for her. A bit abstract and odd things happened, like orange juice coming out of the sink. 3/10
Breath : A child waiting for an organ transplant; a hospital motorcycle courier who takes the job of delivery despite being sleep-deprived, and a woman late for her job interview come together badly in an unfortunate collection of dead-ended attempts to do what they have to. Depressing but thought-provoking and well-done. 6/10
I Was Here : An un-named office worker, worn down by phone calls, pre-packed sandwiches and a sedentary lifestyle, walks home from work and decides to keep going. Eventually he gets to the shore and writes in the sand, then leaves the film to go.. where? The audience is encouraged to imagine what happens next. 7/10
Home : A teenager returns to his family home after a suicide attempt, and we see how his actions have affected those dear to him. Cleverly staged so the situation is slowly revealed. 8/10
Legion of Plotters : A stereotypical 'grumpy old man' shows us his life and the young people around him who irritate every minute of his day. They are working together for maximum annoyance, he concludes, and finally snaps. 7/10
The Imaginary Girl : A young girl lives with her career-motivated mother and spends her time playing with her toys in her room, some of which are made by her dad who sometimes visits. Both parents try their best to bring her up but do more harm than good, and those children outside don't seem to want to play with her. Time for a little imagination.. 7/10
Crosswords : A dark comedy about an odd woman lives alone in a house filled with crossword puzzles in boxes and pinned to the wall. A phone call from a pushy vacuum salesman will be the last one he makes when he comes to give a demonstration. 6/10

Heavy Metal in Baghdad (US 2008) (site)

A documentary charting the survival of Baghdads' only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda, from their formation in 2001 to the current day, dealing with wars, death threats, their friends dying in the scirmish and the world around them turning to rubble. It seemed to suggest that there are plenty of underground rockers in the country, using heavy metal to mosh out and get away from their troubles, the individual members wanting to look like their western heroes but having to tone it down a lot because of the religious restrictions around them. Even a goatee beard is risky. Thanks to the documentary maker, Canadian-born MTV films director Suroosh Alvi, they were able to film a gig in 2005, shortly before the band splitting up and going their separate ways. The second half of the film follows the director as he attempts to re-establish contact with the individual members, who were among many to move out of Iraq into nearby countries including Syria, just to stay alive.
The subject matter may not be to everyones' taste, (I'm certainly not a rock fan myself) but the story of fighting to keep doing what you believe in against oppression is a pretty universal one. 6.5/10

23 September

Linton Zoo (site)
For a bit of variety, we headed off in a random direction and ended up at Linton Zoo, which had a few delapidated cages full of overgrown plantlife, but generally the animals themselves looked pretty well cared for. Highlights included the friendly but lonely Ground Hornbill 'Oboe', who was eager to give us a present of dried leaves whenever we came to say hello, the Tapir mother and daughter pair who had learned to climb the fences to eat twigs, and a couple of African Grey parrots that came over and let us tickle them through the bars.

The Dancing Forest (UK 2008) (feature)

A documentary about Africa once again, but this time, instead of showing the brutality of infighting, the effects of rampantly spreading desease or some other problem that tears the country apart, this film showed that things are happening to help turn it around. A small village in Togo is the setting for a movement initiated by by CIDAP - a French Agricultural Development charity - that changes the way that the people are thinking about their lives. The past decades have encouraged the people to lead an individual pursuit of goals and consequently the community has discintigrated and the skills passed down through the generations have been lost. Thanks to the actions of a small group, mostly the elderly women and widows of those killed or lost to desease, they have worked to turn it around and get people to see the benefit in working for the community and with the nature and the land around them. CIDAP weren't without their criticisors; some women did not see their profit in the community work they did and others felt they were working hard where others were not, or just simply being worked to the bone to get the whole thing off the ground. This film charts the story of the movement and its successes and failures, the title coming from the communal dance at the end of the harvest to give thanks, each participant holding a large branch of a tree. 7/10

Goodnight Irene (Portugal, 2008)

A dual language film, in English with sections of subtitled Portugese, this film is a drama with elements of comedy mixed in. Set in Lisbon, a grumpy but well-spoken old English actor named Alex hobbles around the streets by day and when he needs to, continues his job as a holiday video voice-over artist. Bruno is a young key cutting shopkeeper who makes extra copies of his clients' keys and breaks into their houses during the night, not to steal but because he is fascinated with their lives and feels he must document and photograph everything about them. Both men have Irene come into their lives; especially Alex, who slowly softens towards her. One day without warning, Irene disappears, and the two team up to find her.
Though there are plenty of parts of the film I enjoyed, there were some that dragged, particularly in the middle, where Alex and Bruno squat in Irenes' flat trying to find clues to her disappearance. The director, Paolo Marinou-Blanco was present in the screening and answered a few questions at the end, some of which were understandably about the unexpected and unresolved ending, which ended up on the cutting room floor, may frustrate or inspire the viewer in equal proportions. 7/10

Running the Sahara (US 2008) (site)

Another documentary, but done in a very American style. Three runners, none of which were particularly famous, (one had been a habitual drinker and a slob only a few years previous) decided to run across the Sahara desert, that's going from the west to east coasts of Africa, and not in a straight line. One point is immediately deducted because the film we saw was incomplete; there were no subtitles and no credits at the end - this shouldn't be a problem with the finished film but it spoiled it somewhat in the showing. The subtitles were needed because one of the runners was Taiwanese, the other two American.
They ran 7500 km in 111 days, and the film is a chronicle of the hardships along the way; blistering and cramps, problems with passports and border controls and sheer mental and physical exhaustion.
It was directed (and narrated) by Matt Damon, and the American sugar coating got a bit thick in places, with plenty of meet ups with their wives/partners, and a huge team of support crews behind them in 4x4's, and a few scenes that looked a bit set up, such as some of the arguments, and all the happy children filmed jogging with them through one of the cities, or a mild diversion where one of them was lowered down a well which was meant to bring attention to a well-building project, but just looked like filler.
This was a Hollywood take on a genuine feat of achievement, a film which though I enjoyed and would recommend to others, I felt that if they had just kept it simple and raw like a journey documentary should be it would have been a lot better. Don't get me started on the protracted minutes worth of quick scene changes and whip-pans that made up the introduction... 6/10

That takes us about halfway through the holidays, I'll post up the other half soon.


Anonymous said...

I thought the montage introduction to Running The Sahara was intense- what didn't you like about it?

fancyplants said...

Hi Anonymous,

My quip at the end of the RTS review was because I am not a fan of such an in-your-face method of grabbing people's attention to a film. When RTS started it just made me groan that the directors had taken the decision to condense the entire film into a blam-blam-blam set of zoom-in/zoom-out quick cut scenes. I see it far too much on TV where program makers try to make the subject matter more exciting to those because they are scared of losing the attention of some of their viewers. (I'm not having a go specifically at US output either - UK programme makers are also adopting these tricks too). The subject matter - a gruelling and noble effort to run across Africa - had no connection with the sort of hi-adrenalin action films that these camera tricks *might* sometimes warrant. To me, a more gentle build-up that reflected the anticipation during the preparations and the easy first day would have been more suitable.

That's my own personal view anyway and because it was right at the start it spoiled my enjoyment a little. However, I felt it was still a worthwhile film.