25th Cambridge Film Festival 2005

Jamie Garwood


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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7- 17 JULY 2005

My coverage of the 25th Cambridge Film Festival is restricted to just three days – Monday 11th to Wednesday 13th - due to conflicting interests and unforeseen circumstances, however over those three days I managed to see 12 films of different style, nationalities and experience.  All held their own level of expectation, some where retrospectives, short cinema and new features from around the world.  This is my review of the festival:

Cambridge is a city just 40 miles from where I live, so I know I can reach it easily in my car in no time at all I also know that they have a Park and Ride scheme just off the M11 but as I learnt on the first day the Park and Ride does not stay open all night owing to boy racers and crime, as a scheme it is really there for the nine to five business sorts who cannot get a car parking space in town, I say town because it is too small for a city.  At least it is a bit better than Colchester with its umpteen mini-roundabouts, here if you want to turn right you do, the only cruel factor is the lights at the junction of Regent Street and Gonville Road, which have an odd filtering system.  I have to park in a multi-storey car park on the other side of Parker’s Piece from the Arts Picturehouse, which is £10 for more than six hours, this should be a maximum payment but I pay £12.50 on the first day.  Luckily I get there in good time for the first film on Monday at 10.30am

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001): Screening as part of the Cambridge Children’s Film Festival and the retrospective of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s Oscar winning film of two years still maintains its amazing grasp of magic and fantasy upon its young and older audience.  This is the first time I have seen this film as I imagine does the Secondary school class who are here today, they like me were glad that this was the English Language version and not the subtitled film.  The film is an absolute delight though I feel I must have a stiff resolve as - judging by the reviews I have read of the film – I feel I should have cried at the end though there is more than enough to be swept away by; the detail in the animation, the economy of the design and the inventiveness of the script and action.  Like any film, Japanese animation realises the need for set pieces in its film, here it is the ‘stink spirit’ and the paper birds (who lack detail deliberately, an example of the inventiveness I mentioned).  The film has the theme of greed in terms of both financial and hunger at its heart, one that can appeal to Western audiences and the scene of the parents changing into pigs is a nightmare vision most children can take heed of.  The most admiration I reserve for though is the musical score – a mix of Eastern and classical pieces melding together to appeal to all – and wisely they save the one vocal piece for the end credits.  The character Chihiro is given the opportunity to return in a continuing adventure.  Appropriately the film is both magnificent and spellbinding.

One Missed Call (Miike Takashi, Japan, 2003)
Miike is the renowned king of Japanese horror and one of the quickest directors in the world making at one point six films in a calendar year, but in this feature he seems a bit confused at what it should be; slasher film, supernatural thriller, body horror or a study of the modern Japanese woman.  Had the film stayed on the same wavelength as the first genre it might have succeeded – its uses the frame to scare the audience, a musical score that is witty and uses a ringtone as its own ‘Jaws’ theme – catchy, irritating and frightening. The performances do not matter as they are weak, but all the actors (Miike again uses a long dark haired woman) do use their eyes to good effect to signify the terror.  Overall, the mix-match of styles changes the pace of the film which does drag its near two-hour length.  I did find moments of it entertaining, if only it phoned in the right genre.

Microcinema II – Collected Work of Those People and Cordelia Swann.
This hour long length of short cinema showed work from the Welsh based production group Those People whose work showed a good stream of humour and development of character in the films that ranged from three to eight minutes.  The best work was ‘All My Mum’s Friends Must Be Dead’ and ‘Fingal’s Rule’, both funny and charming pieces.  When talking to the producers – Neil Wagstaff and Jason King – afterwards they admitted that had they been working in London they would be better known, I would tend to agree with them, working in Wales is stifling to their talent and needs to be seen by a wider audience. (www.thosepeople.co.uk)

Cordelia Swann’s individualistic work is one of poetic beauty and lyrical realism, the standout is ‘Tinsel’ a fifteen minute mediation on New York and London told through shaky hand-held camerawork and how closely they are linked in architecture and life.  While it is ambitious her other work I sometimes found devoid of humanism, based on the use of voiceover in some of her work.

Rock School (Don Argott, USA, 2005)
For me this is the best film I saw over the three days.  Following the exploits of one Paul Green and his School of Rock Music based in Philadelphia it tells us about how he took some of his pupils (aged 9-17) to the Zappanalle in Germany and how they steal the show.  It works because unlike the Hollywood film starring Jack Black whose character was a little bit overbearing of the stereotyped children in their roles, here Paul Green is a great character who believes in these children who undoubtedly are talented beyond their young years (CJ the 12 year old guitar prodigy is mouth touching the floor amazing), but you never lose sight of the fact that these are children.  Filmed on digital film supporting the spirit of independence Green endorses, the film is a great documentary with some genuine laugh out loud moments mostly from Green’s mouth.  Argott directs with a real panache using the material to his advantage and in the finale making sure Green is not the highlight and it is the kid’s moment although he does have the last word (‘Greatest moment of my life. Except the birth of my son. Second greatest’). It’s entertaining, has heart and just plain awesome.

Hell on Wheels (Pepe Danquart, Germany, 2004)
Screening as part of the New German cinema, this is another documentary charting the Deutsche Telekom team’s attempt at the Tour de France during the Centenary of the event in 2003 under the shadow of Lance Armstrong (who won) and Todd Hamilton, who broke his collarbone and completed the tour.   A relevant documentary to watch what with the tour taking place at the moment, it reinforces the belief that the tour is gruelling but ultimately is the most painstaking three weeks of any athlete’s career – ‘Look at this shit’ says Erik Zabel at the graph of five climbs in one day.  But rather than glorify the efforts of the team, Danquart makes the team the underdogs and it is the moments in the rider’s bedroom at night that give the team their character and our sympathy.  But it is not just the riders who get screen time we see everyone – the commentators (French and Spanish), the fans, the police, the television crews and an excitable French tour historian.  The highlight though is the bond between room-mates Zabel and Rolf Aldag who themselves call it a marriage but more an unbreakable partnership of trust and brotherhood.  All in all the film makes sure we appreciate their efforts and that completing the course is the ultimate compliment.  Perfectly hellish.

Day Two

Herbie Fully Loaded (Angela Robinson, USA, 2005)
Lindsay Lohan reunites with Disney and again raids the vault for a family favourite with a gender twist, this time taking Herbie the Love Bug and bringing it into the 21st century, combining a knowledge of the teen genre and some moments of the original (the demolition derby, the yellow love match, the race off).  This time we have Maggie Peyton (Lohan) who just graduated and gets Herbie as a present and the car with a mind of its own helps her reunite with a lost love, reignite her passion for racing and encounter Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), the villain.  The film certainly does not make Herbie the star, this is in part thanks to Lohan anchoring the film much like Dean Jones and Jodie Foster did for Disney years ago along with able support from Dillon, Justin Long (the love interest, Kevin) and Michael Keaton (the over-protective father).  The final third of the film unfortunately gets too American and too sentimental in the notion of the underdog overcoming all the odds, along with the notion of NASCAR, which might go over some British audiences heads, and gets to the level of patronising.  For Disney the theory is a bit too psychological; is it a film about the fear of a woman entering a male dominated world or the woman fearing to enter that same world.  There are plenty of references to film, pop culture and obvious product placement.  It is a good film but if only they could tell an underdog story without the necessary victory it might be great.

The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, Germany, 2003)
There is something that I found unsettling about this feature in the New German cinema which tells the story of Melanie, a young German teacher who leaves her hometown and boyfriend to take up a job in a bigger town where she encounters problems with her fellow teachers, her classes and her new friends.  It tells about how alienating a new change of life can be but I found it unsettling to the extreme that I did not want to watch anymore and I am glad that the film was only 81 minutes long.  The film is a little scatty due to the unpredictable nature of the lead character and we ourselves feel alienated from a character who should have our sympathies.  I may sound negative but the performance of Eva Lobeau, who goes on an emotional rollercoaster in this film and eventually lets her character regress back to her wanted childhood, is impressive.

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1947)
This is a new digital print of the classic British film released from the bfi and will enjoy a two-week run at the National Film Theatre in August.  The film in its new print is a joy to the eyes and ears from the performances of Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, to the winning cinematography from Jack Cardiff and the score which set a precedent until they outdid themselves with the Red Shoes.

Oil on Ice (Dale Djerassi, US, 2004)
An hour long documentary telling about the oil drilling in a part of Alaska that is technically not to be touched and how legislation by the Bush administration attempts to alter this.  Eye-opening to the point of making us realise how corrupt American politics is and how second the American citizens are to the mighty dollar.  If Michael Moore had made this documentary – part wildlife film, part political message – instead of a character assassination of Bush he might well have affected the voting of last November.  But the message is that the American government would rather drill than improve fuel efficiencies, which if they made sure they signed the Kyoto agreement would be easy to enforce and save the planet.  Enthralling viewing.

Day Three

Confederate States of America (Kevin Wilmott, USA, 2004)
This feature from Kevin Wilmott is a bold uncompromising and intelligent docu-feature which is a work of fiction that poses a lot of cultural specific questions upon the audience to consider: what if the Confederacy had won the civil war and slavery had not been abolished.  Using archive footage (a la Ken Burns), hoax talking heads and adverts set on Confederate Television that are of the now but based on that outcome; it plays for laughs but has serious undertones.  It is the skill of the script and the deftness of the direction that Wilmott can then pull the curtain at the end and show that most of the products ‘advertised’ were in fact real items in American history – Samco Grease, Darkie toothpaste and the Coon Chicken Inn.  There are wonderful skits on American televisual history – mimicking the work of D. W. Griffith, ‘I Married an Abolitionist’ and the Slavery Shopping Network with the Massacard.  We even have our own Kennedy family in the form of Fauntroy and even Fauntroy V reprises Clinton’s most famous speech.  The skill of the script is that even though it is a fictionalised history it still has key moments inserted; the rise of Nazism being understood by America and America doing a Pearl Harbor on Japan in 1941.  This type of work is bold, confident and for the most part entertaining – keeping the message important and true to the film.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942)
The Oscar-winning classic and the highlight of everyone’s career – Curtiz, Bogart, Bergman, Henreid, Rains.  Screening in a new print which might very well float around the country over the next year is pristine and nice to see.

Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 2005)
This collaboration between Jarmusch and Bill Murray is a film that holds great expectations by all involved, which is why it makes the final result all the more perplexing and disappointing.  It tells the story of a modern day Don Juan, Don Johnston (Murray) who receives a letter saying he has a 19 year old son and on the advisement of his neighbour and amateur detective, Winston (Jeffrey Wright) he goes round to see his five girlfriends from twenty years ago who might be the mother and find his son.  The film has comedy at his heart and it is the comedy of manners and embarrassment which provide the laugh out loud moments especially at the second girlfriend, Dora (Frances Conroy).  But the film slowly tries to unravel and attempt to come to some sort of conclusion and resolution for Don but because this is Jarmusch, whose work is very anti-Hollywood and unwilling to provide a sufficient happiness for his characters, it leaves Don alienating and alone as a punishment for his years of bachelorhood and failure to commit.  Murray plays humdrum well again but not as successfully as in Tokyo, sorry Lost in Translation, and Wright plays the limited Winston to perfection but is left being a voice at the end of a phone.  The women are all two-dimensional characters some don’t even have time to be on the screen.  All in all, the Europeans will love this, but we like the Americans so westernised in our expectations of comedy and film we be ultimately frustrated and left in limbo as Don becomes.

As you can tell, the Festival is one of diversity and challenging works but overall with the message of independence at its heart.  It was exciting to be around some exciting new work from every corner of the globe and I look forward to next years with great anticipation.  
 
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