Cambridge Film Festival 2009 Day 2

Houston, we have a Problem (US) (site)

My guard was up on this one; amongst other things, Houston is billed as a look at the American oil crisis in a slightly different manner to what you would usually expect, that is, talking with the oil companies and seeing that far from enjoying their status as purveyors of black gold, they are falling on hard times (relatively) and it turns out they actually saw the oil problems coming, and lobbied for research into more sustainable energies back in the 70's. I don't know about you, but that smacked of a controversial right-leaning film attempting to paper over the problems and blame someone else. Despite some initial signs of this, such as well-off oil men laughing about what the average joe thinks about where they get their tank of petrol from (whilst living it up on a private jet), I'm happy to say the film did not give me further reason to think the facts contained within were so sugar coated.

Beginning with the events of the late 60's, where America was producing oil at a rate that pushed the price of a barrel down to $3 and people couldn't shift the stuff from the gas stations, the administration of the time took the decision to artificially withhold its availability in order to get the price back up to a more reasonable rate for the sake of the survival of the industry. By the mid-70's this was working and the price had doubled, but new problems were on the cards; increasing reliance on oil from the middle-east coupled with the increasing cold war brewing over in Russia. When the Reagan administration came into power they upped the prices of oil once more in order to bankrupt the Russians and bring a swift end to the cold-war conflict before it could get off the ground. The increasing price of barrels had unfortunately driven custom away from the Americans and were instead going to the Middle East, who by now had decided that the oil being drained from under their feet was theirs to sell for themselves, and thus took steps in the intervening years to make sure it was their companies drilling for it.
All this leaves America in a bit of a pickle, fuel wise, and as the film states, several successive presidents since the Carter era have had the opportunity to do something about it but have faltered after the campaigns died down and the job of actually running the country set in.

Fortunately, the film doesn't dwell on any one area of this rather large issue too much, it flits between the history of the crisis, the wildcat diviners who would go in search of new seams to exploit, and the people who are trying to do something about it; the latter refreshingly taking up the last segment of the film, showing us there are people out there, not just the backyard experimenters, who are investing in ways to remove dependence from oil (although this refreshing news is tempered somewhat when it's clear environmental concerns take second priority to ensuring America is not at the whim of other countries for its energy needs). Algae generating bio-diesel, huge solar panel and wind farms, nuclear and thermo-electric technologies are all apparently finally receiving the attention they need to become the producers of the future.

Though not directly related to the energy concerns of the UK or Europe, this film is still interesting and relevant for anyone who is troubled about where we are going as a world with our energy use, and what the most consumptive nations on the planet are doing about it. 8/10

The Butterfly Tattoo (UK) (site/wiki)

Based on the book of the same name by Philip Pullman, which was itself a loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, The Butterfly Tattoo is in the unfortunate situation of having its audience know what will happen at the end before the start of the film, and as with many films in this situation, it gets around this by showing the finality of the story in the opening credits: A young man finds his love dead on the floor, and overcome with grief brings the weapon to his chest to take his own life.

We then go back several days to the source of the event, where middle-class lighting engineer Chris saves free-spirited but posh Jenny from the attentions of an Oxford oik at a midnight party. A little detective work on her discarded dress leads him to her flat, and a love affair begins to blossom, much to oiky's distaste and Jenny's coffee-shop co-workers' intrigue. What could have been an oft-trodden story of the sheltered Chris's descent into Jenny's decadent world turns out not to happen, but instead concentrates on endearing the viewer to the couple, so on the slow push towards the pair's eventual demise we don't want what we know will happen to happen, which thanks to the whisperings, events and misunderstandings of the pair and the people around them we are powerless to stop.

The Butterfly Tattoo is solidly made, well written (if you can ignore some of the clunkier novel-to-screen dialogue in the film's early stages), and constantly twisting and swerving as it makes its way towards its final conclusion. The two main roles were excellently delivered, and that necessary spark required for a convincing romantic encounter was present and correct. It was fresh, original, and kept the attention. A perfect film for a couple of romantics to watch. 8/10

Kin (UK) (synopsis)

Brian Welsh's first film is on a shoestring budget of £12.5K. It is clear that the locations didn't require the budget of, say, Transformers, and you might expect this film to suffer in quality with such a tight restriction, but the resulting film doesn't once show that it may have been better with a bigger wad of cash behind it - as the festival presenter said, big bucks are not necessary for a great film. Dominic Kinniard puts in a great performance as Frank, a middle-aged man with mild autism and learning difficulties, whose days are spent happily playing pool down the local pub, and driving his carer Sally mad with endless playthroughs of his beloved Liverpool cup final videos.

One day, his estranged sister Carol rings with news of their mother (played by Ma Boswell, aka Jean Boht), who is becoming increasingly difficult to care for, and could he spend some time in the old family house to take some pressure off and help look after her.

Carol has made things as comfortable as possible for Frank; his old bedroom, his favourite Liverpool FC duvet and posters, and the old portable telly are back in the places he left them so long ago, and its clear from the off that Carol wants Frank to stay a while when she goes out and takes the key. But when Carol starts taking away Franks freedoms it's clear that the goings on within the old family house are not all they seem.

Especially with it's meagre budget, Kin delivers great performances by the four cast members and a genuinely disturbing, claustrophobic situation that the viewer quickly becomes both enthralled and troubled by. Nicola Marsland gives Carol a truly menacing edge, though not without also generating empathy for what is clearly a broken soul desperately in need of a stabiliser, and the whole story is carried along with the question of how Frank can escape his captor when she knows his every facet and with each turn his freedoms are eroded still further, or whether he should stay in the house for the sake of his mother and sister. Kin is one of those films where little is said but much is hinted at, the little scraps of story suggested in the sparse scripting firing the imagination to think of the backstories of the characters and how Frank was treated by Carol in their formative years, and the dark humour keeping it from being depressing.

Brian Walsh, Dominik Kinnard and Nicola Marsland were all present for a Q+A at the end of the film, where the director revealed his inspirations for the film, the casting process and some of the trials of working on a shoestring budget, which was an extra bonus. 8/10

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