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33rd Cambridge Film Festival – My Reviews

This year’s 33rd Cambridge Film Festival was the first one I attended as an official reviewer for Take One magazine. I wasn’t able to see everything I wanted, but I still got to catch a few interesting films (and crossed Upstream Color off my too-see list, where it’s been pretty much since I first heard about it). Where I didn’t review the film for Take One (excerpts and links to the full review included below), I’ve crossposted the review from my Letterboxd account.

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For Those In Peril

Dir. Paul Wright

UK / 2013 / 93 mins

Watched: Saturday 21 September

A strong debut feature, with a striking visual sense and a feel for life in a small fishing town. George McKay makes for a vulnerable lead as the lone survivor of a fishing trawler disaster, and Kate Dickie is wonderful as the grieving mother trying to hold onto her son in the midst of the town’s suspicion; the scene where she sings “The First Time I Saw Your Face” at karaoke is a standout.

The constant interpolation of different film types, news footage, dream fantasy sequences and ethereal voiceovers create a powerful mood, making the setting into a borderland between ordinary dry land and the mythical, elemental power of the sea. If the catharsis of the ending doesn’t entirely convince, the experience of the film as a whole is rich and strange.

[Letterboxd]

 

Rock the Casbah

Dir. Yariv Horowitz

Israel, France / 2012 / 93 mins

Watched: Monday 23 September

The soldiers’ first mission is shot with a kinetic sense of tension and movement, with the hand-held digital cameras roving after characters as they race through the narrow backstreets. A routine patrol turns into a clash with stone-throwing protesters, then a foot chase, and finally an ambush resulting in the death of gung-ho soldier Ilya (Henry David).

From there, the film is moored to a central location: the roof from which the ambush took place. Posted there on the orders of their hard-nosed commanding officer, Tomer and three other soldiers settle into a routine of boredom and frustration, eking out petty struggles with the local Palestinian population, most prominently the family whose home they occupy.

[Take One]

 

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Upstream Color

Dir. Shane Carruth

USA / 2013 / 96 minutes

Watched: Tuesday 24 September

Filtering into the audience’s eyes and minds like an eerie kind of infection, Shane Carruth’s second feature suspends the audience in its dream-state of loose association and surreal concepts.

It’s a film unafraid to be utterly filmic, using sound and vision in non-conventional ways to construct mood as a storytelling element. While Amy Seimetz and Carruth play the hesitant connection and eventual romance between these damaged, unsure characters with heart and vulnerability, so many other elements of the film add to the story; the gorgeous cinematography, the colour palette, the score which works so well as to be a character in its own right.

One can draw a throughline of interest in how humans relate to the natural world connecting Carruth’s two features. If PRIMER is about the damage caused by running up against the hard, unyielding physical laws of the universe, then UPSTREAM is about the tension between accepting that we are simply biological organisms and reckoning with what consciousness means in light of that. Where does that intangible thing that makes us human reside? It’s richly ambiguous, and never less than gripping.

[Letterboxd]

 

Cold

Dir. Uğur Yücel

Turkey / 2013 / 105 mins

Watched: Saturday 28 September

Played by Cenk Medet Alibeyoğlu (discovered by the director while working in his local bar), [protagonist] Balabey is a dour, taciturn railway worker and family man. Constantly slumped into a posture of defeat, he is diffident to the point of near-total silence, with a thick bushy moustache hiding a large part of his face. His volatile, sharply-dressed brother Enver (Ahmet Rıfat Şungar) is his opposite number; their scenes together are coloured by mutual incomprehension. They live in a small remote town in the deep hinterlands where Turkey meets the Caucasus, permanently covered in snow. From the very opening, we are gradually immersed into this slow-moving world via a series of seemingly unconnected scenes. We see vignettes of Balabey and Enver’s home lives, as they navigate fractious relationships with their respective wives (who happen to be sisters) and go about the ordinary business of living.

[Take One]

 

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Wake In Fright

Dir. Ted Kotcheff

Australia / 1971 / 114 mins

Watched: Saturday 28 September

A horror movie where the monster is booze, FRIGHT takes us on a nightmarish tour through the underbelly of outback Australia, fueled by boredom, testosterone, and a seemingly endless supply of beer.

The stuffy English teacher protagonist, in his pristine white Roger Moore safari suit, is our fish-out-of-water audience surrogate, but enough of an arrogant snob that we secretly like seeing him fall further into debauchery and madness. Donald Pleasance is great as the devilish alcoholic guiding him through this sweltering underworld.

[Letterboxd]

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Dir. Sophie Fiennes

UK, Ireland / 2012 / 136 mins

Watched: Sunday 29 September

The film achieves a surreal blurring of lines between the films being analysed and the commentary itself. We jump from a clip from Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER to Zizek addressing the camera from inside Travis Bickle’s filthy apartment. It’s akin to a more typical documentary presenter wandering around castles or battlefields as he recounts historical events. The overall effect is to endorse Zizek’s thesis; works of fiction are rendered solid, as he discusses the power of the invisible messages buried within them.

There’s something of Adam Curtis’ playful, casually transgressive video essays in Fiennes’ film. But while Curtis specialises in excavating secret histories from bottomless reserves of archive footage in order to challenge accepted narratives, IDEOLOGY looks at what is hidden in plain sight, embedded into the films that both reflect and construct wider conventions of narrative.

[Take One]

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CFF 2010 – Enter The Void

Enter The Void (2009)
Dir. Gaspar Noe (France, Germany, Italy)
137 minutes
Screened: Friday 17th September 2010


Before watching Enter The Void, I only knew the work of professional provocateur Gaspar Noe by reputation – I didn’t particularly want to subject myself to Seul Contre Tous or Irreversible, and I’m still not sure I’d be able to stomach them if I did. But his latest film garnered high praise that piqued my curiousity.

The film begins (after a sensory assault of an opening credits sequence) by showing events through the eyes of Oscar, a young drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister. Taking the first-person POV technique to an unsettling extreme, the cinematography even includes Oscar’s blinking, and a spell of abstract images as a result of a hallucinogenic drug trip. Oscar goes to meet a potential customer at a bar, and is shot by police during a raid. From there, the constantly-roving camera takes the POV of his spirit as it drifts out of his body, across Tokyo, and back and forth in his life.

If this sounds like heady stuff, it is. The disorienting effect is heightened by Noe’s use of unconventional spinning and whirling camera movements and an ambient soundtrack from Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter. While the characters are unappealing and Noe relentlessly grim view of human nature begins to drag after a while, the visuals are never less than stunning. There is something incredible to be seen in just about any sequence, from the neon lights of a toytown Tokyo, seen from Oscar’s spirit’s perspective as he drifts, to the replication of that neon topography in a seedy strip club or an artist’s model, to a car crash filmed from inside the POV. Noe has described his film-making as “like constructing a roller-coaster”, and there’s definitely a sense as the camera hurtles headlong through space and time that the audience is strapped in for a ride that aims to thrill and shock.

Enter The Void is a far more visceral than intellectual or emotional experience. (The brief references to the Tibetan Book Of The Dead serve to explain the film’s structure, but I found them to be a little on-the-nose.) However, it’s a true cinematic experience; one that aims to create images and sensations that have rarely ever been experienced via the medium. It may be sleazy, perverted and self-indulgent, but it’s also wildly inventive and ambitious.

 

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CFF 2010 – Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010)
Dir. Debra Granik (US)
100 minutes
Screened: Thursday 16th September 2010
Having gained numerous plaudits on the festival circuits, Debra Granik’s backwoods crime drama arrived at the Cambridge Film Festival with a certain weight of expectation. Fortunately, I wasn’t let down in the slightest. With terrific economy, Granik weaves the gripping, terrifying and ultimately moving tale of 17-year-old Rhee Dolly’s quest to find her fugitive father before the family house is forfeited for his bail money.

Her journey takes her deep into a desolate landscape, and a community that is as divided as it is close-knit, ravaged by poverty and crystal meth. With its long-running blood feuds, suspicion of outsiders and codes of silence, the territory bears more resemblance to 19th Century Sicily or the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier than to 21st Century America.

Throughout the film, Jennifer Lawrence anchors the audience’s attention and sympathies; as Rhee, she is tough, resourceful, and also heartbreakingly vulnerable. As a girl forced to accept a woman’s role in her household, she spends as much time caring for her younger siblings as she does sleuthing. These scenes add depth and subvert the model of the old-school Western hero by foregrounding her femininity with out sacrificing the values of bravery and stoicism.

Lawrence’s extraordinary performance is aided by some excellent support from, among others, John Hawkes as her menacing uncle Teardrop. Ravaged and eaten up from the inside by drugs and guilt, his mixture of savagery and tenderness towards Rhee is terrifying and mesmerising. Garrett Dillahunt is similarly engaging as an awkward local sheriff, and Dale Dickey commands the screen as a grizzled, frightening mountain woman.

Winter’s Bone makes the most of its locations, giving the desolate Missouri woods a stark beauty; the cinematography, using the RED digital camera system, is wonderful and near-indistinguishable from film. For all the darkness and horror contained within, it’s an ultimately uplifting film, about an indomitable spirit withstanding the trials that her location and background bring to bear on her. And while a twisted and malevolent conception of “family” stalks the film, Rhee and her siblings provide a shining counterexample.

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