Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (Part 3)

Peter Sellers: The Early Shorts (UK) (BFI article)

In the 1950's, before Sellers' career really got going, he starred in a handful of short films, a trio of which were shown here.  The common link between them is Sellers' character, Hector Dimwiddle, a hardworking but often unsuccessful middle class gent, put upon by his inlaws, and unknowingly reliant on his dependable wife.

Two of the films, Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You were considered lost for many years before turning up in the late 90's.  These were presented in what looked like a restored digital print.  The third, Cold Comfort, was in much poorer condition, but still watchable.  You can see clips of the first two here.

These films were roughly cut, and it was clear both actor and director were feeling their way with the filmmaking techniques at the time, which lends a certain charm.  Sellers later talents of vocal mimicry and physical slapstick are seen in an early stage, and it was nice to see some examples of the proving ground he used to hone them.  But ultimately, these films are more of a lighthearted distraction than a necessary pilgrimage for Sellers' fans, and if you were not to catch them in your lifetime, you have more accessible and entertaining examples of his work to fall back on.  6/10

A Life of Crime (US) (wiki)

Jennifer Aniston gets a bit of flak as an actress, probably due to being the most annoying one from Friends, plus some pretty awful adverts ('here comes the science bit...!').  But she's also managed a few unexpectedly good turns as well - she had a credit in South Park, of all things, and you can't fault her in Office Space, and...

Well, we can also add A Life of Crime to that list.  Aniston's character, Mickey, is the frustrated trophy wife of Tim Robbins' Frank, and they spend their time letting everyone know how happy they are together, at golf clubs and swanky parties.  It's all a front, and the love left their lives long ago.

But it was convincing enough to encourage small time crooks Louie and Ordell to take a pop at some amateur hostage taking, using the local nazi gun nut's house as a place to keep her while they wait for the money to roll in.  But when Frank sees this as an opportunity to get out of his nightmare marriage without having to pay divorce fees, Mickey's future depends wholly on the unpredictable nature of her captors.

A pretty standard crime caper is made much more fun by some well-known faces and some sharp dialogue, the main thrust of the plot nicely complicated by the sleuthing of good-intentioned but unappealing neighbour Marshall, who has always been hovering around the cadaver of their relationship waiting to see what he can salvage for himself.  7.5/10

I Believe in Unicorns (US) (official site)

Director Leah Meyerhoff laid herself bare on the celluloid in this semi-autobiographical, kickstarted film about Davina, a young teen who one day leaves her life of caring for her sick mother, and takes off with an older boy with which she falls in desperate love.  A moody, petty criminal, Sterling can do no wrong in her eyes, even when it is clear he could be a danger to be around.  When he suggests they climb into his battered car and keep driving, she can't help but follow.

Mayerhoff's film is about a young woman maturing both sexually and emotionally; the audience is asked to sit there helpless, hoping that Davina can see for herself whether Sterling is the right man for her before she passes the point of no return.  Cleverly, the film presents some degree of ambiguity, suggesting that these two can be happy together, and, as in Davina's emerging fantasies, she can soothe the wounds that cause the problems between them, so it is some way in before we can guess the outcome.  Some of it can be difficult to watch, such as Davinas' ever willingness to present her body as a solution whenever there is a problem between them, but this is necessary in a realistic character study of blind love and desperation for a life less ordinary.  7.5/10

The Case Against 8 (US) (official site)

This documentary comes at a time when many have heard about the changes in the US constitution that came about largely as a result of the retelling of events.  In California in 2008, same-sex couples were allowed to marry, but, as is often the case with progressive gains, there were many who took offence to this (gee, I wonder who they could be), and very quickly, Proposition 8 was created - which reinstated a previous ban not more than a few months after same sex marriages were allowed.  All those couples who had been married in the interim received an impersonal letter telling them it had been annulled.

Two couples however decided to fight the ruling, and brought an appeal that was to stand out for two reasons - first that it would take five years to finally be resolved, and that it brought together the legal minds of two individuals you would have expected never to agree on anything.

David Boles and Ted Olsen were on opposite sides of the 2000 presidential election controversy, where Al Gore's people were demanding a pivotal recount.  Taking sides reflecting their political colours, Boles fought for Gore, and Olsen for Bush.  Bush won and the rest is history, so to find common ground in marriage equality from both sides of the political spectrum was both a surprise and a feather in the cap; cross-party support showed that this was not a political issue.

Some may ask: what's the big deal?  Same sex couples can have civil partnerships and receive all the same rights as hetero couples.  But people are being discriminated against based upon nothing more than who they are.  If a law was to be passed requiring that people with black hair were not allowed to ride on the front seats of a bus, would those affected be happy as there are lots of seats they could sit on?  I suspect even those who never use public transport would feel aggrieved about such an arcane decision.

The Case Against 8 tells the story from the appeals side, using footage filmed in the legal offices and courts, with news reports and talking heads mixed in for good measure.  It's an important historical document of how the right will eventually happen, told with surprising humour and a focus on the human lives hanging in the balance on the decision.  Many times over the years they seemed to have won, only for the opposition to appeal and take things higher.  Victory would take a long time coming, but eventually it did, and the eventual ruling - that same sex marriage bans do not benefit anyone and discriminate unfairly, and is thus unconstitutional - became the catalyst for other states to follow suit.  Many subsequent statues have fallen with 19 states currently supporting same sex marriage.  Hopefully, eventually, they will all fall. 8/10

Violet (Ned/Bel) (review)

Who can tell how a person will react in the heat of the moment?  For Jesse, a young teen in a shopping mall, his is to stand dumbfounded as his friend is stabbed and killed in front of him.  Quiet and introverted, he relies on the comforting embrace of his other friends to help him through the difficult aftermath, but when it becomes clear that he failed to do anything to stop it, some of his peers begin to push him out of the group.

Violet is very bare-boned, with a lot of long, drawn out shots with not a lot happening.  Some of this is down to the tension of the moment, of Jesse's racing mind behind a stoic expression, but it can get a bit samey and feels forced sometimes.  The first, lauded feature film by director Bas Devos; it does tackle the aftermath of such an event in a very atmospheric manner, it does feel like a film that was stretched out to pass the hour milestone required to count as a full feature.  And celebrated talk of a final scene being 'amazing' - well, I couldn't see what the protracted 9-minte shot ending in an overenthusiastic smoke machine was really trying to say. 5/10

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