Monthly Archives: September 2008

Cambridge Film Festival review – UK Shorts Programme 3

Screened: Monday 22nd September 2008

In addition to the feature films I saw at the CFF, I caught one of the three programmes of short films from the UK. They were a real mixed bag, so instead of reviewing the programme as a whole I’ve written a short piece on each film.


Dir. James Cooper. UK. 8 mins.

First up, an engaging little short that took a neat concept and spun it out for maximum laughs. Devoid of spoken dialogue, the film shows a conversation in text message form between two gangsta-rap-obsessed teenagers. Very funny, nicely shot to show the texts against the locations, with a decent payoff.

Time Out

Dir. Angus Gafraidh. UK. 8 mins.

A man finds a copy of tomorrow’s newspaper, and uses it to his advantage. The film unfortunately kept skipping at odd moments, which at first I thought was just terrible editing. Pretty silly, but I have a soft spot for the goofy comedy feel of it, because it’s probably the kind of short film I’d make.


Dir. Will Adams. UK. 2 mins.

The adventures of an astronaut and his bumbling robot. Too short to make much of an impression, it had the feel of a channel ident.


Dir. Simon J. Riley. UK. 8 mins.

Yet another addition to the overcrowded sub-genre of “sales rep goes to the rescue of an apparent kidnap victim, only to discover that she’s a happily married S&M enthusiast” slapstick comedies, with little to differentiate it from classics of the form.

The Legend of Ol’ Goldie

Dir. Matthew Snyman. UK. 8 mins.

A lonely young boy keeps a pet goldfish, but has to keep feeding it… A great combination of real footage and CGI, with a suitably absurd sense of of humour driving the twisted fairytale to its logical conclusion.

And The Man Is Born

Dir. Pavel Prokopic, Marie Morgan. UK. 9 mins.

A tale of unwanted pregnancy and 80s pop stars, with a bizarre mood enhanced by some well-chosen shots, and a nice performance from the lead actress. If you’ve ever wondered what Eraserhead might look like from a female perspective, this film will show you.

Sun In The Night

Dir. Anne Wilkins. UK. 4 mins.

Deep within woods that are more suggested than drawn, a story of grief and imagination is played out. Poignant and a little eerie, the animation style is a big plus.

21 Seconds

Dir. Ru McArdle. UK. 9 mins.

A drama about a security guard and a suicidal actress, set over one night in a car park. The decision to shoot in speeded-up long takes portrays the characters as immobile statues against a stream of rushing headlights, and lends the film the insomniac’s feel of a long night, not passing nearly fast enough. A great visual style, but almost ruined by the “message” at the end of the film: “Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy.” Yeah! Take that, suicide!


Dir. Chiara Ambrosio. UK. 13 mins.

A marvellous stop-motion animation depicting Charon, the figure in Greek mythology who ferries the dead over the river Styx. Charon is a hunched, wizened figure wrapped in tattered robes, moving in achingly slow jerks that seem eerily lifelike. The sound design brings every wheezing breath to life, as he moves on in a uniformly dark landscape. The standout short of the programme.


Dir. Sarah Bick. UK. 6 mins.

This didn’t make as much of an impression on me as the others. The memorable parts were more about the art and design featured onscreen (a girl dressing up as a cupcake, etc.) than the filmmaking.

The best of the bunch? Charon, with Speechless coming in second.

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Cambridge Film Festival review – Katyn

Katyn (2007)

Dir. Andrzej Wajda (Poland)

118 minutes

Screened: Monday 22nd September 2008

The opening scene of Katyn takes place on a bridge where two crowds of fleeing civilians meet. One group is running from the invading Germans, the other from the Red Army. It’s a bleak opening to a bleak film, and one that reduces the tragedy of Poland’s experience in the Second World War to a human scale, in order to tell the story of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces in 1940.

The isolation of individual stories among the multitudes is skilfully done, as the camera moves past the crowds to seek out a few characters. And yet, in the shocking final scenes, we revert to an impersonal, far-off view, as the main characters become just a few faces among many. For most of its running time, Wajda focuses on the struggle of several families, as the men are held captive by the Soviets, and the women are left to hold their lives together. It is a film with a strong focus on the domestic, but we only ever see the full family unit in scenes of heartbreak and farewell.

The characters, who come from various segments of society, are connected to each other in ways that are sometimes implausible; I can’t have been the only audience member to find it unlikely that everyone in Krakow knows each other. Another distraction was the English subtitling, which frequently ended up mangling the dialogue (something that I assume will be cleared up if/when the film gets a wider British release).

Katyn has the look of a standard WWII prestige film, all immaculate interiors and well-fitting costumes. However, the overly comfortable mood of many British and American war films is absent here. There is no assurance of eventual triumph – the massacre is compunded by the Soviets’ repression of the truth after the war ends. The later sections of the film bring home the poisonous atmosphere of doublethink pervading the post-war Eastern Bloc, as Katyn becomes a propaganda tool for the Soviets, and writing the wrong date on a headstone can become an offence.

The denial of the right to remember compounds the tragedy, a message emphasised in the final shot, as a hand clutching a rosary is covered by earth, leaving no trace. The film’s natural style brings a deep horror to the scenes of the massacre, and the struggles of those left behind serve as a grim reminder of more recent attempts to pile atrocity upon atrocity by by wiping out the memory of murder.

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Cambridge Film Festival review – The Lark

The Lark (2007)

Dir. Steve Tanner, Paul Farmer (UK)

70 mins

Screened: Saturday 20th September 2008

The debut feature from Cornish film-making collective War-rag is an arresting achievement, if not for its accomplishments then for the way it transcends its limitations. Shot in HD digital video for less than £10,000, the film used a mix of amateurs and professionals, some of whom donated their skills and experience for free. It’s an authentic slice of independent film that makes the most of its tiny budget with an amazing location and impressive lead performance.

The film begins with Niamh (Mary Woodvine) entering the derelict complex of buildings where she lives with her two young children, clad in a boiler suit and respirator. Her over-riding concern is to protect her children from the poinonous world outside. The early scenes of this family group have a touching intimacy, an initially set the scene for a post-apocalyptic drama. But the plot thickens as it soon becomes apparent that not everything Niamh sees is actually there.

For long stretches, The Lark is essentially a one-hander, and Mary Woodvine carries the film with a skilful combination of exterior toughness and a hidden vulnerablity, as she explores her surroundings. Each location, strewn with rubble, broken glass and enigmatic grafitti on the walls, adds to the dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, and Niamh’s occasional hallucinations of crowds of people filling the place only serve to emphasise the desolation that surrounds her.

It’s only with the arrival of two visitors from the outside world that the film loses its sure footing. During the scenes where Niamh interacts with Jackson (Mark Jackson) and Siobhan (Helen Rule), the dialogue too often turns elliptical for its own sake, and Jackson falls into the improv-class pitfall of SHOUTING HIS LINES TO BE DRAMATIC. However, after a brief wobble the film regains the emotional intensity of Woodvine’s performance, as fantasy and reality are reconciled.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of twisty, identity-based thrilers that feature unrealiable narrator/protagonists. If a film bears the slightest resemblance to Fight Club, Memento or The Machinist, it’s odds on I’ll enjoy most of it. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I got to meet the director and hang around with him before and after the screening. We had a pretty interesting conversation about (among other things) the logistics of filmmaking, festivals and the appeals and pitfalls of making a genre film.

Modern independent film is unafraid to embrace and borrow from mainstream genres. But the best art is acheived when genre is used as a springboard for original ideas. In the director’s words, The Lark started as an attempt to make a straight horror film. Where it ended up is unclear, but it is definitely an original creation.

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Cambridge Film Festival Review – Gomorrah

While working as a volunteer for the Cambridge Film Festival, I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Everything I see will be reviewed on this blog, along with a short write-up of the outdoor screenings the Festival is running this year.


Dir. Matteo Garrone (Italy)

135 mins

Screened: Thursday 18th September 2008

 Portrayals of organised crime onscreen have often glamourised gangsters, even as they seek to deliver a moral message. The Sopranos, among others, has recently shown the everyday “work” of the Mafia in a banal and grubby light. But at its heart, the mobsters are the main characters, and we still root for them. There is no such symppathy in Matteo Garrone’s crime drama, adapted from Roberto Saviano’s bestsellling expose of the Camorrah, the main organised crime family of Naples. Taking the form of a series of interconnected stories, it explores the effect of crime on already desperate people.

A young boy living on a warren-like housing estate aspires to join the local gang. A pair of Scarface-obsessed teenagers plan to steal a cache of weapons. A tailor is squeezed by his boss’s orders to work harder for less money. A senior mob figure oversees the dumping of toxic waste in a disused quarry. The last story ingeniously mirrors the way the Camorrah’s activities and the ensuing moral corruption poisons everything it touches.

The film’s deliberately unglamourous and naturalistic style emphasises the squalid nature of the criminal activities portrayed, with long hand-held takes leading us around the locations, which range from cramped apartments to a desolate stretch of beach. Apart from a short scene in Venice, there is hardly anything recognisably “Italian”. This is a trans-European world of open borders and globalised crime, where human life, along with everything else, is judged on a financial basis. The characters caught in the web of the Camorrah are commodities, as much as the dresses turned out in sweatshops to be labelled haute couture, or the peaches gifted by a civilian to a mob boss, who then tips them out of his car to rot by the side of the road.

Ultimately, the bleak conclusions to the individual stories was never in doubt. But I would have liked to travel further up the food chain, and see how government and the police deal with the gangs. (Collusion? Hostility? Resigned tolerance?) Regardless, Gomorrah is a dark but essential drama, part City of God, part The Wire, and all about the way our continent, and our world, lives now.

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